criticalvoices

On issues that matter …

An Atlas of Impossible Longing April 29, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 12:08 am
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I haven’t posted anything in a pretty long time. I thought I’ll re-start by posting some old published book reviews of mine (These books should still be available, if not on some shelves, then on Amazon).

I’ve reviewed a good number of books over the years. While review copies that come from publishers are never really literary masterpieces, they definitely make for very interesting reading.

I like it when I see the characters in the book located in my world; I like it when the author pre-locates herself/himself in the same world as her/his characters rather than pretending to be their creator; I like it when I can see exactly where the author is located.

If you happen to read these reviews, I hope you find at least some of those locations in your own sensory space.

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An Atlas of Impossible Longing

It never fails to amaze me about books where there seems to be no love lost between the authors and the characters they create.

One is not necessarily inclined to read only stories with ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ but when you loyally stick with the trials and tribulations of a family over three generations – some from their birth to youth and some from youth to death – in a near epic novel, it is with an expectation to bond with the characters, to become part of their lives.

But somehow, throughout ‘An Atlas of Impossible Longing’ debutante novelist Anuradha Roy does not allow any of her characters – including a pet parrot – to endear themselves to the reader.

Roy, undeniably, has a treasure trove of vocabulary at her easy disposal, for she weaves webs of descriptive narratives loaded with adjectives whether it is molding her characters or painting landscapes or etching out simple default acts as talking or walking. And yet, the people and places in the book come out shaded under dark and near ominous canopies.

For the painstaking detailing, you only notice the writer’s penchant for the unpleasant – “… a pimpled half-moon that struggled up into the sky…”; “…I took the opportunity to study his face, which was pockmarked and dull, with one eye oozing a purulent infection…”; “He would stick his finger into his ear and with one eye closed and prise around until the fingernail emerged with wax rimming the end…” – and you leave with a sense devoid of empathy towards the characters who are allowed neither pride of any achievement nor elevation through virtuosity.

Such then probably is the life of ordinary folks and their story can be told too… and therein, perhaps, lays the writer’s might – the mastery over the written word.
The setting is in a vast house in an ultra dull little town in the Bengal of colonial India and revolves around a family that after having called it home for three generations, could not sustain it but for the intervention of the orphan boy adopted by the family patriarch.

There’s a widower who struggles with his love for an unmarried relative; a motherless daughter, who runs wild with the said orphan of unknown caste; a matriarch who goes slowly mad mouthing obscenities, confined as she is in a room at the top of the house; and her self-centered husband who dies, his search for the cause of his wife’s mental deterioration remaining incomplete.

As the younger generation grows up, it finds a new life for itself, but not without its share of mediocrity and heartaches.

One does get a perspective of unquestioned patriarchal authority that existed at the time, the prevalent caste and class distinctions and a bit of the pre-and-post partitioned India.

‘An Atlas…’ marks the American debut of the writer, who has garnered enough praise for her novel: ‘A story to lose yourself in… brilliantly told and intensely moving” says the Sunday Express review. “Roy’s prose does not hit a single wrong note… its restrained beauty sings off the page” says a Time magazine review. “A lyrical love letter to India’s past…” says the Financial Times.

Roy is the publisher of an independent publishing house in Delhi, India. ‘An Atlas…’ has already been published in thirteen languages around the world.

Some final thoughts on the novel: The character that takes on the lead in the final chapters does belie the book’s title to fulfill one of his long-held longings in the end; but having watched most of the characters live through their ordinarily lackluster lives from an almost voyeuristic perch, you close the last page without a smile.

Well, it’s a story, either you like it or you don’t like it. But that in no way is a reflection of the author’s prowess for writing. Although she does not fulfill the consummate (and hopelessly romantic) listener of stories in me, Roy does come through for me as a connoisseur of literature.

{An Atlas of Impossible Longing, Free Press, $14 – Includes Reading Group Guide}

SRIREKHA CHAKRAVARTY

 

 

 

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