Tuesday, April 5, 2011

An Atlas of Impossible Longing: What She Read Review

The novel goes on sale in paperback TODAY! 
Get it at
 indiebound.org or betterworldbooks.com.
It did not end the way I expected. 
And the last part is best in this modestly-paced novel of 20th century India.

In An Atlas of Impossible Longing, publisher-writer Anuradha Roy (not to be confused with Arundati Roy, author of The God of Small Things) traces one family's dysfunction through three generations, offering up a tale of caste and ill-fated love and decaying houses.  It begins with patriarch Amulya's decision to move from Calcutta to a small town in Bengal to build a stately home in the country (mining country, at that) for his large family.  Then, as sometimes happens in novels about India these days (think The Inheritance of Loss or A Fine Balance) we witness the ravages wrought by a patriarchal culture and by the larger caste system as well.  Women, bullied and battered by their solipsistic husbands, go slowly insane or act out maliciously toward socially inferior women.  Boys are raised to be as self-absorbed as their fathers and girls to serve them well.

In Roy's world, we also see the trickle down of these trends - both familial and cultural - while the 20th century trods on apace through partition and into the mid-50's.  The children of turn-of-the-century mansion-builders unwittingly carry on these legacies as do their children in turn, if in subtler ways and with less reliable outcomes, as houses decay and nature slowly reclaims its jungles and rivers from the men who attempt to control it. (masculine pronoun used advisedly here)   In the most recent generation of this particular family, caste-less and marooned orphans attempt to wrest their lives from the ravages of their pasts and their upbringings.  But as the novel's title might suggest, their world does not go easy on them either.

Roy's novel reads with the stately pace of a hot Indian summer, and one does indeed sense her characters' impossible longings, crushed by time, custom, and just plain human meanness and manipulation, again and again.  And again we have a tale that leaves us feeling that - at least in some recent fictive Indias - people rarely escape into the relationships of their choosing, and happiness cannot be captured for long. 


ActionReader Step:  Get busy repairing the myriad home and yard problems that one ultra-wet winter has wrought.  I could ignore these issues until I don't see them any more and the house falls down around me (as do some characters in this novel) OR look at my home with the eyes of a visitor and get busy making it whole again.  This book reminds me of the dangers of the former - and how ignoring exteriors may indicate something to others about our interiors, so I will choose the latter in order to cultivate wholeness in myself as well.

For additional commentary on symbolism and point of view and characterization and the title of An Atlas of Impossible Longing...
The Decaying Manse:
This symbol (or would you call it a metaphor?) of ill-conceived European-style homes erected in wild lands and destroyed in time by India itself occurs over and over again in the novels I've read recently.  Is this an inescapable archetype of the current Indian psyche?  I am left to wonder.  It seems not so much the symbol of psychological dissolution (as in Poe's Usher), but rather perhaps a nod to the evanescence of colonialism and all the psychological dysfunction it heaps on top of other cultural elements.

Perspective:  Point of view in the first two sections of this book is third person omniscient, shifting so frequently among characters that one has little time to build a relationship with any of them.  This puts the reader at a distance from the psychological dramas in the first 2/3 of the novel, perhaps an authorial attempt to push us to see her characters as emblems or types or pawns rather than specific human beings? 

Then, the third and final section offers us close first person perspective and the possibility of understanding at least one character thoroughly.  Odd and jarring though this shift is, this section of the novel is by far the most engaging because we're finally offered enough of the interior life of a character to sympathize as we watch the charmingly reckless young orphan Mukunda morph into a dissolute and rudderless young man, all on account of "impossible longing".

Title: Thematically, the "impossible longing" makes some sense, but "atlas"?  Not so much (despite a brief sentence in the text from which the title is drawn).


bookspersonally said...

Gorgeously written! Love your review, and gave me a few additional points to consider, especially the "decaying manse" as metaphor. Love your discussion of the impact of the social/gender restrictions. (Did you read Tiger Hills? interesting to compare.)

Lorri Jeanne said...

Nice review!

Karen said...

Great review! You pointed out a few things I hadn't thought about in my own! I'm also adding the link to my review:


LBC said...

Interesting review. I'm not finished with the book yet, but I'm reading and enjoying it.

Samantha said...

That was really well written, and I also think you are spot on about the patriarchal society and caste system. i loved your review- and how you point out WHY she went mad. lovely. i'm following now, and i do hope you will try to stop back and follow me- i know you said my GFC was not working, but perhaps you can hit "refresh" and maybe it will work this time. dumb google, lol


Laurie said...

BP - I'll put Tiger Hills into my library queue: Thanks for the suggestion!
Lorrie & Karen - I enjoyed your reviews too: So many divergent opinions on this one.
Laura - I'll be interested to read your take on this once you've finished...
Samantha - Thanks for stopping by, and I'll head back to your site because I thoroughly enjoy your blog and want to follow you too.

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

What a brilliantly written review. Thanks for introducing me to this book.

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