The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai

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The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A beautifully crafted collection of three novellas all set in modern day India sharing themes of loss and the artistic process. The quality of the writing shines through.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 176 Date: August 2012
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099553953

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Anita Desai's The Artist of Disappearance is a collection of three novellas with several satisfying unifying features. All are set in modern day India, all involve some looking back in time and all three involve some consideration of the creative art - who it is for, what happens to it once it leaves the artist's control and who 'owns' it. Most of all, each one is beautifully written, with strong characters and evocative descriptions of personal loss. In terms of length each is relatively short - around 50 pages long - but after each one you feel that you've been engrossed in the story just as much as if you had read a novel of more conventional length.

The collection opens with The Museum of Final Journeys in which a young civil servant recalls his training when he was sent into the provinces where he encounters the elderly servant of a once rich family whose son has collected a museum of curios which the crumbling household can no longer support. Seeking government intervention to prevent the collection from being broken up or lost, he attempts to gain the civil servant's assistance. The final piece of the collection, which includes a trunk, is a particularly large surprise.

The second story, and for me the pick of the bunch, is entitled Translator Translated. A middle aged woman meets a former school friend at a reunion starting her on a new career as a translator of local dialect fiction. Desai explores issues of who owns the fiction - the original writer or the translator - as the woman increasingly finds herself putting her own spin on the stories she translates. In this story, Dasai is at her most playful in using different writing styles. Often this can grate on the reader, but here it seems entirely natural and perfect for the story she is telling. Of the three, this is the one that I've found myself thinking about most after reading.

The final story gives the collection its title. It's a touching story of a man whose family house is burned down in an accident and where he remains, adopting an increasingly hermitic existence. His days are filled creating a small work of art in the surrounding hills when his anonymity is threatened by a visiting film crew. For me, this is the only story that seems constrained by the short format as the artist and the film crew battle for centre stage in the story, but that's a minor quibble.

Desai's writing is what shines throughout the collection. It's delicate and beautifully crafted. Each novella is satisfying on its own and even more so as part of the whole. Even taken together, it's a brief, but totally enjoyable read. Short story collections always work best for me when there is something that ties them together. It's a shame that there are only three stories in this collection. It is well worth checking out, particularly now in the more affordable paperback version.

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Vintage for sending us this collection.

For more beautifully linked short stories from Asia, look no further than In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin while if you are hankering for a fuller length book then The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy shares both location and style with the final story in Desai's collection.

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Buy The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai at


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