Saturday, 13 September 2014

Review: The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee (Man Booker Shortlist 2014)


Book: The Lives of Others

Author: Neel Mukherjee

Pages: 416

Read On: Hardback copy pictured above.

How Long It Took Me To Read: 3 days.

Plot Summary: 'Ma, I feel exhausted with consuming, with taking and grabbing and using. I am so bloated that I feel I cannot breathe any more. I am leaving to find some air, some place where I shall be able to purge myself, push back against the life given me and make my own. I feel I live in a borrowed house. It's time to find my own. Forgive me.'

Calcutta, 1967. Unnoticed by his family, Supratik has become dangerously involved in extremist political activism. Compelled by an idealistic desire to change his life and the world around him, all he leaves behind before disappearing is this note .

The ageing patriarch and matriarch of his family, the Ghoshes, preside over their large household, unaware that beneath the barely ruffled surface of their lives the sands are shifting. More than poisonous rivalries among sisters-in-law, destructive secrets, and the implosion of the family business, this is a family unravelling as the society around it fractures. For this is a moment of turbulence, of inevitable and unstoppable change: the chasm between the generations, and between those who have and those who have not, has never been wider.

Ambitious, rich and compassionate The Lives of Others anatomises the soul of a nation as it unfolds a family history. A novel about many things, including the limits of empathy and the nature of political action, it asks: how do we imagine our place amongst others in the world? Can that be reimagined? And at what cost? This is a novel of unflinching power and emotional force.

General Thoughts: I first heard of this book when it first came out and I read about it mentioned in the papers. It sounded lovely! But I thought I'd wait till it came out in paperback since the price for the brand new hardback was a little too steep.

Fast forward a month or so and I found out that it was Long Listed for The Man Booker Prize and my resolve to wait for the paperback melted away. Plus, hello, this hardback is a beautiful book! Vintage books have done a smashing job of designing the cover. It's a very pretty book and the spine is lovely too.

There are so many things about the premise of this book that drew me in....

Calcutta
1960s-70s
Family Life
Some joint family drama.
Bengal in a turbulent time.

All things I love. Simply LOVE!

The only fly in the ointment was The Naxal Movement. Like I mentioned in my review for The Lowlands, my family has had a tragic connection with said movement. So I don't normally read anything to do with the Naxals and the savagery they stood for. I am biased and I don't particularly care for the Naxals, and I am OK with it. The only reason I read The Lowlands because it was Jhumpa Lahiri and I will read anything and everything she writes and I loved the way she dealt with the Naxal angle in her book.

Since I had read one book dealing with the Naxals I decided to give this book a go. So I did.

Now on to the review.

Things I Liked:

1. The writing is great. I am curious to read other books by the author, since I immensely enjoyed the writing in this book.

2. The book is told in alternating chapters between the life of the Ghosh family and the next showing the letters Supratik is writing to to mysterious someone  about his life in a small village where he is working with the poor farmers. I enjoyed this, the drama of Ghosh family juxtaposed with the suffering of the farmers and Supratik's new life.

3. I learnt a lot from this book, meaning I learnt about how Naxals spent some time with the very people they worked for. I didn't know about this. Supratik living with struggling farmers was very interesting and also at times very hard to read about. The descriptions of abject poverty and the hopelessness of the situation and the hard work they put in was done so well, it felt like I was there, watching these scenes unfold.

4. This book has so much going on, the family feuds, fights and petty clashes between daughters-in-law to a young man willing to give up family and comforts for the cause he believes in to a family losing their former way of life to the chaos of the times to a love that defies all social conventions. I was engrossed in all that this book had to offer. I really appreciate the scope of this book and all that it held within it's pages.

5. The prologue of this book was fantastic. It will stay with me for a long time to come. I knew I would enjoy this book at the end of the prologue.

6. Similarly, I was very pleased with the ending. The two epilogues settled the fate of a character I grew to care about deeply and cheer for and also told us of the Naxal movement in it's present avataar.

7. I think this is a great book for someone who wants to read about the Naxals, I can't imagine that research that must have gone into the writing of this book! This book does an amazing job at taking you inside the movement, the life of these young boys who believed in the cause and sacrificed so much to do what they felt was right.

8. My absolutely favourite thing about this book has got to be The Ghosh clan. God, I loved these people. I didn't like most of them but I loved reading about this family. They seemed real and I could imagine them easily as a family living and breathing in a city I know well. It's a big, joint family with members from three generations and servants living in a house slowly shedding it's former glory. They are minutes away from financial disaster and their old way of life is slowly slipping away. I loved reading about their dynamics and petty and not-so-petty family politics.

9. This book is full of deviously delightful characters. Vile people really but aren't they so much fun to read about? The unmarried Pishi was a my favourite, she was terrible, horrid and a complete pleasure to read about. I wouldn't want someone like her in my family, extended family or even as an acquaintance. I loved how her character was written, her bitterness, her venom and her hate did make sense given that way life turned out. She was so much fun.

Things I Didn't Like: 

1.  There is a lot of transliteration in their book, common Bengali phrases translated into English pretty much word for word. I am not a big fan of this in general. As a Bengali, I enjoyed it, since I could just easily imagine the characters saying the things in Bengali, but I don't think I'd enjoy it remotely as much if I weren't Bengali.

2. There was no one I really liked in this entire book. They were a bunch of unlikable people, the lot of them. While I get that the world isn't made up of wonderful people full of light and sunshine, it is still is little tiring to read a book full of pretty much not nice people.

3. My biggest grouse was the bits with Supratik. I really, REALLY did not like him. Nothing about him made me even warm up to him. His diatribe against his wealthy family just seemed like a privileged boy throwing a tantrum. His 'journey' and his life for the 2 1/2 years he spends in the village while interesting to read, did nothing to make him a character I cared about. By the end of the book, I wanted to slap him a little bit, and what he did to a servant in the house made me want to punch him in his self-righteous face! Ass!

4. There is a lot going on in this book, a LOT. And sometimes it just felt too much was cramped into a book that was already heavy to begin with.

5. There is a sick, sick, sick sexual fetish in this book that made my stomach turn. I am no prude but this was just a bit much for my system. (If you've read the book you know what I am talking about!)

6. There was equal focus on the family aspects and the Naxal elements in the book for most part, but somewhere around the middle of the book, I felt the focus tipped over to Naxal side of things. Now this is entirely my personal preference but I wasn't a big fan of this. I felt Supratik took over the book and I'd much rather have read more and spent more time with the Ghosh family.

Rating: 3.5/5

I read this book way back in August and I took all this time to review it because I needed to sort my feelings about this book. I will recommend this book if you like the premise of it and are interested in reading about family life and times in Calcutta and West Bengal in 1960s.

I plan on reading all 6 books Short-Listed for the Booker, one down and five more to go. Wish me luck. 

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