I don’t tend to read novels set in South Asia.
I don’t tend to read novels set in South Asia. It is a heritage and history I have actively avoided, as bringing up the stories or politics of such nations was a sure fire way to incite my father’s rage and disgust at the society of his birth.
Particularly when it was written down into a novel about a rich family, falling from social grace but being too arrogant and proud to accept their fate, instead spinning lie after lie to pretend they still ruled. It cuts just a little too close to home.
So, it was with some trepidation I picked up The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee’s brutal yet fragile portrayal of a family crumbling under the weight of their traditions and hubris. I was worried about what I would find, an angry rant about corrupt governments and poisonous capitalism.
Brilliant juxtaposition and contrasts
But I was pleasantly surprised. Deliciously vibrant descriptions and rich, sweet prose bring to life the mundane details of domesticity; family bickering, secret teenage lusts and petty rivalries, juxtaposed with sharply with the unforgiving poverty, suffering and corrupt politics.
The delicate familiarity of home life is overlaid with a foreboding, dark pulse of social resentment and change, threatening the old traditions and comfortable existence of the family. Characters are complex, with detailed personalities, each one to be pitied and despised and humoured at once.
In particular, Mukherjee contrasts the male dominated world of the rebel missionaries murdering other men in the dark jungle, with a strong focus on the women; the bricks who build the family.
Their loyalties and actions are far more revealing and interesting than those of the men, it is refreshing for a novel to look so closely at what makes the women tick rather than scattering them through the plot to propel the story. Instead they are necessary and vital to the book and allow us to hear about the big events from almost every angle.
It tackles big, heavy themes of history, politics and oppression but intersperses them with relatable, humorous, day to day stories – making the tougher subject matter manageable for even the most issue-phobic of readers.
Hooks every reader
It depicts a world whose “running fuel is anecdotes and stories,” when status and hierarchy are written in stone but are so firmly engrained that it is better to bury the truth completely than to let the world know you are in trouble. It shows a sickened society on a tiny scale, which allows readers to reflect on their own issues, no matter which country they are reading the book in.
There is a mystery hidden in the pages too – the “tragedy” is hinted at constantly throughout, gradually building up the story from a thousand different sides. We can guess what “it” was, but the details, the why and how of what happened are tantalisingly out of reach – so we are driven to keep on reading, desperate to solve the dark, family mystery.
Deserving of a place on the Man Booker longlist
This is fantastic book. Bitter anger simmers beneath the displays of lavish opulence until it inevitably breaks through the cracks in a surge of fury. Ending on a note of painful reality and glowering resentment at a culture and society frozen, arrogantly blinded by its past glories, the novel crushes the hope of a happy ending at the same time it ignites a spark of joy for the one who escapes.
Amusing, enlightening, sickening and shocking in turn, The Lives of Others is a strong contender for this year’s Man Booker prize.
What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.