The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
|The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A family in 1967 Calcutta as turbulent as the times they're living through. Powerful, heart-breaking, violent; not a book to enjoy but one I'm so pleased I read. I won't say potential Man Booker winner 2014 because we all remember what happened to my last tip, but…|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 528||Date: May 2014|
|Publisher: Chatto & Windus|
|External links: Author's website|
SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2014
SHORTLISTED FOR THE COSTA NOVEL AWARD 2014
Many generations of the Ghosh family live together in a single house in 1960's Calcutta, albeit a very big single house. Life may be materially comfortable but not easy. Jealousy, in-fighting, the struggle to keep the family business going (and, for the younger family members, the struggle to lead the life they'd like) causes more than the odd sleepless night. Son Supratik has succeeded in choosing a different path though. He's tired of the endless consumption and acquisition and leaves home to follow his Marxist beliefs, exchanging family living for discomfort and danger.
Neel Mukherjee is on a literary roll. His acclaimed debut novel A Life Apart won the prestigious Indian Vodaphone Crossword award (Crossword being a chain of bookshops throughout India). This definitely wasn't beginner's luck as this, his second novel, proves, romping into the 2014 Man Booker shortlist and – fingers crossed for Neel – to the winner's podium. (But we'll pretend I didn’t say that as I have a bad record predicting these things!)
This isn't a novel one 'enjoys' as such because it's so hard hitting but it's so wondrously written we can't look away. It's literary in that there's depth and meaning but the passion that's instilled into the narrative has also created a hypnotically fascinating story.
The Ghosh's home is so inter-generationally packed it's sometimes a bit difficult to remember who belongs to whom. (A family tree would come in handy.) However, once I gave up trying and let the episodic vignettes from their lives, past and present, wash over me I realised their relational line doesn't matter. Their experiences create the story's structure - and what experiences!
I'm ashamed to say that I had no prior knowledge of Indian history around the eras during which we follow the family so it was all a revelation. As those who 'have' enjoy a privileged lifestyle, a reaction is building in the villages; the suppressed peasant-like agrarian populous are empowered and politicised by travelling communist units. It just so happens that Supratik is one such traveller as we learn from his interspersed chapters, written as a diary addressing us directly in contrast to the third person narrative of the rest of the book.
However, as Supratik seeks to radicalise the poor, his factory-owning family in the city is crumbling as the family paper business starts slipping away. In a novel about the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, we see a family starting to slide from one towards the other. The interesting thing is that the slide is increasingly one of humiliation as much as embarrassed finances.
It's not just about family and national history though. We are also privy to the local customs and ways of thinking. We feel for Chhaya, too old to marry at 30 and having the awful experience of watching her younger brother married off before her. Meanwhile Beishakhi hopes to evade an arranged marriage as she's fallen in love with the guy upstairs. When it comes to Suranjan Ghosh, he's enjoying life as a student, absorbing The Beatles, The Grateful Dead and various nefarious substances.
Amongst the love and loss that echoes their nation's struggle, there's some pretty strong stuff – and not just violence. Neel seamlessly inserts literary stomach punches that took my breath away, manipulating sympathy, empathy and sometimes disgust on the journey to one heck of a finale.
No this is so gut-wrenching it would be odd to call it enjoyable but most of us will come away recognising this novel as something special that we wouldn't have missed for anything.
(Thank you so much Chatto & Windus for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If you haven't caught up with it, Neel's debut is definitely recommended. If you've read it then we recommend winding your way through this year's exemplary Man Booker nominations, perhaps starting with The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, my tip for success that didn't even make it from short list to long list. (I'm not bitter!)
You can read more book reviews or buy The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee at Amazon.com.
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee is in the Costa Book Awards 2014.
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