18 November 2018
Here is a novel that could so easily have been loud. It is set among large events: the fight for Indian independence and the second world war. It features characters from history who enter the lives of the novel’s fictional characters, often to dramatic effect – the poet Rabindranath Tagore, the singer Begum Akhtar, the dancer and critic Beryl de Zoete and the German painter and curator Walter Spies. It has at its heart a young boy whose mother leaves him to live in another country, and whose father responds to this crisis by also leaving the child for an extended period of time, and who is later imprisoned for his anti-British activism. There are many reasons to turn up the volume dial.
But readers of Anuradha Roy, whose previous novel Sleeping on Jupiter was longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker prize, know that shoutiness or showiness is never her style. She is a writer of great subtlety and intelligence, who understands that emotional power comes from the steady accretion of detail. Amid all the great events and characters of history, she chooses as her narrator a horticulturalist known throughout by his nickname, Myshkin – “a man who chose neither pen nor sword but a trowel”.
A compelling story of a woman who rebels against tradition for her artistic freedom
Freedom of a different kind is in the air across India. The fight against British rule is reaching a critical turn. The Nazis have come to power in Germany. At this point of crisis, two strangers arrive in Gayatri’s town, opening up for her the vision of other possible lives. So what was it exactly that took Myshkin’s mother from India to Dutch-held Bali in the 1930s? Excavating the roots of the world in which he was abandoned, Myshkin comes to understand the connections between anguish at home and a war-torn universe overtaken by nationalism.
This beautiful novel, set in the Southeast Asia of the 1930s, evokes beautiful imagery of places and landscapes. It does its work quietly and with great subtlety, but it is a novel of big ideas. At the core of All the Lives We Never Lived is a woman who chooses her art over family & her individual freedom above the country’s independence. Amidst this drama her son, Myshkin looks back on his mother’s leaving as the defining trauma of his life.
A dazzling, moving new novel by the internationally celebrated author of Sleeping on Jupiter.
All The Lives We Never Lived takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian subcontinent and around the colonial globe–from the cramped neighborhoods of pre-colonial India and the roads of the war-stricken Germany and even Dutch captured Bali and beyond, where war is peace and peace is war. It is an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a story told in a whisper, in a shout, through unsentimental tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh. Each of its characters is indelible, tenderly rendered. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, patched together by acts of love–and by hope.
As this ravishing, deeply humane novel braids these lives together, it reinvents what a novel can do and can be. All the Lives we Never Lived demonstrates on every page the miracle of Anuradha Roy’s storytelling gifts.
A gem a great tempest of a novel: a remarkable creation, a story both intimate and international, swelling with comedy and outrage, a tale that cradles the world’s most fragile people even while it assaults brutal villains. All The Lives is a thoroughly absorbing work of art a hybrid of satire, romance, thriller, and history. It speaks to the universal struggle of artistic people to be free. Here is writing that swirls so hypnotically it doesn’t t feel like words on paper so much as ink on water. This vast novel will leave you awed by the heat of its anger and the depth of its compassion. All The Lives is the follow-up we’ve been longing for a poetic, densely populated contemporary novel in the tradition of Dickens and Tolstoy.
Anuradha Roy’s new novel gives us a cast of unforgettable characters, caught up in the tide of history, each in search of a place of safety. It is at once a love story and a provocation, an emotional embrace and a decisive demonstration. It is told in a whisper, with a shout, with tears, and with a laugh. Its heroes, both present and departed, human as well as animal, have been broken by the world we live in and then mended by love. And for this reason, they will never surrender. All The Lives We Never Lived tells a shattered story, magnificently, without ever trying to make it whole. The scope of the book, its peerless prose, and unique, formal inventiveness make this novel new, in the original meaning of the novel. Moving. . . powerful…The kind of book that makes you feel like you’ve lived several times over. It contains so much of everything: anguish and joy and love and war and death and life, so much of being human. All The Lives rips open the world to show us everything that is dazzlingly beautiful and brutally ugly about it…Roy centers the vulnerable and the unseen, making clear that love is the only way for individuals to really meet across the borders of skin or country. Everything is alive in All The Lives, from emotions to people to the country itself. It is this aliveness of every human as well as every animal and thing that makes this novel so remarkable. All The Lives is the ultimate love letter to the richness and complexity of India—and the world—in all its hurly-burly, glorious, and threatened heterogeneity. Roy is a treasure of India and of the world.
All the Lives We Never Lived is a beautiful work of literary prose told by the memory of Myshkin, nicknamed after one of Dostoevsky’s characters. Now in his mid sixties this horticulturalist looks back upon his youth and the betrayal he felt when his mother left him for an Englishman. Attempting to understand the reasons for his sudden abandonment, the reader is swooped into a long history of the narrator’s childhood growing up in India. We meet a long chain of family members and friends, all the while being immersed in a war torn country under an strong patriotic influence with the innocent falling under the hand of the powerful. Woven beneath a narrative of sadness and familial conflict is also a tale of suppression of women in a country where voice only has one gender. Set in the 1930’s and early 1940’s the reader is met with the ugliness of the rise of World War II and India’s tumultuous fight for independence. Freedom, one of the main themes in the book, is delved into in multiple respects. Freedom for women from men, freedom from a powerful and corrupt system of oppression, and even freedom, as we see with the narrator, from one’s own backward looking thoughts.
For a book so politically placed, the narration is much strong and intense, almost that when you are through the book you see your body hair to rise. All the Lives We Never lived is a breathtaking story of a child’s abandonment by his mother and the motives that drew her to leave behind the comfort of stability on a quest for freedom in a war-torn country where women are not only expected to be caged but also brought up to be caged willingly. This is one of those books that is sure to linger with me, having left me questioning humanity: what really does it take to cage a person? Love? Hatred? Both? And what it answers to the world is the theme of “Self Exploration of a Mother”, for as Myshkin never knew what her mother was from inside and what drove her away from his father, he never tried to explore her, only when she was lost to him and suffered by the pangs of separation that he explores his mother, the only being whom we love a lot but never do explore.
Part of Roy’s skill as a writer is shown in her ability to reveal the awful consequences of Gayatri’s choices while retaining great compassion for those choices. This novel is not interested in condemning absent mothers. By contrast, Roy is refreshingly unimpressed by the anti-imperial activities of Myshkin’s father – who seeks freedom from being ruled while behaving like a tyrant in his own home. The world that rewards men for their public actions and forgives them their private cruelties, placing national politics above gender politics, is one that Roy slices through in her prose, though always obliquely.
From this starting point, Roy’s narration intermingles fact and fiction, history with fantasy, to superb effect. The young Myshkin watches Axis prisoners of war pass through his hometown of Muntazir on a train — and is aghast. ‘We were accustomed to Indians being skeletal and diseased,’ he observes. ‘But white men were born never to resemble them.’ It’s the ‘were born never to’ that does the heavy lifting here — the essence of colonialism captured in one throwaway clause.
But this is no leaden anti-colonial polemic — Roy is too subtle a writer for that. Myshkin’s staid and obstinate father is not a sympathetic figure: devoting himself to the cause of wider independence while neglecting his familial duties.
Taking in the second world war, the fight for Indian independence and occasionally fast-forwarding into the 1990s, All the Lives We Never Lived is ultimately both a work of beautifully realized history and personal narrative. The cover blurb tells us that Roy is ‘one of India’s greatest living authors’. On this evidence, it’s hard to disagree.
All the Lives We Never Lived is set largely in the early part of the 20th century, with some sections in the 1990s. It does not directly refer to #MeToo or the macho hyper-nationalism of today’s India. But in its portrayal of power structures, it is part of those very contemporary political conversations. It is also a beautifully written and compelling story of how families fall apart and of what remains in the aftermath.