I get so excited whenever I start a novel that begins with a family tree. Something about the style of a family saga really appeals to me in the way it traces how individuals function both independently and as part of a family. “Celestial Bodies” mainly focuses on the stories of three sisters in modern day Oman, but it also presents a number of perspectives of different family members and people connected to that family. Like Sara Taylor's novel “The Shore” it also moves backwards and forwards in time showing how the decisions and circumstances of earlier generations impact the current generation. This creates a poignant picture of what this family inherits but also a larger picture of how the country of Oman has changed so rapidly in its values and social structures (especially in regards to slavery and women's rights) over the past century. But what engrossed me throughout this novel was the skilful way in which Jokha Alharthi entrenches the reader in each perspective to immerse you in their dilemmas and (often) hidden passions. 

It was fortuitous that I happened to be in the middle of reading “Celestial Bodies” when it was announced as the winner of this year's Man Booker International Prize. While I enjoyed the stories it was presenting it's the type of book where you can feel a bit disorientated until you understand its plethora of characters and the various timelines at play. For a while it felt like I was looking at a jigsaw puzzle trying to figure out how the pieces fit together. But the work in putting it together yields a lot of pleasure because it allowed me to see a much larger picture of this family's various trials and developments over a long period of time. It forced me to think about their personal history not in a linear way but in the resonance of events and how they impact different generations.

I especially appreciated how this novel depicts absences within a family like in this passage about the mother named Salima who grieves for her lost son: “Every day and every night, for ten years, she died a little more. She breathed and ate and drank but she was dead. She spoke to people and walked among them, dead.” Quite often families will have members who die at quite an early age and their loss can reverberate through many years. So while the story is mostly about the immediate concerns of these very different sisters we gradually come to understand that their older brothers' presence also remains in the minds and hearts of this family. And there's a touching injustice to how people can become preoccupied with these losses rather than focusing on fostering the development of those still living.

This is such a rich and complex novel whose many layers will probably become more evident with a rereading. Yet there is so much in the immediate concerns of its characters being presented from chapter to chapter showing all their many humorous idiosyncrasies and longings that I found this first reading entirely engrossing. I was particularly gripped by the story of the bookish middle sister Asma whose marriage takes her life in an unexpected new direction. While I could connect with a lot of the sisters and their husband's concerns it was really fascinating to read about lives and a culture so different from my own. It's made me much more interested in exploring literature from other countries and I'm so glad the Man Booker International Prize has prompted me to read more translated fiction this year.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJokha Alharthi

The novel “Kintu” by debut novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has been frequently compared to Yaa Gyasi’s hugely popular “Homegoing” because of its structure as an African family epic. However, “Homegoing” begins in the Gold Coast of West Africa (now Ghana) and “Kintu” takes place in the Buganda kingdom (today known as the Republic of Uganda). Makumbi’s ambitious tale begins in 1750 when Kintu Kidda, the leader (Ppookino) of the Buddu Province, travels with a group of men to swear loyalty to the new king (kabaka) of the entire Buganda kingdom. Kintu demonstrates what a savvy politician he is making alliances and also balancing his time between his many wives that he’s taken for political reasons. A tragedy occurs concerning Kintu’s adopted son Kalema and this sets in motion a series of calamities surrounding his favoured wife Nnakato and his heir Baale. It also sparks a legendary curse upon his family which is still felt amidst his descendants who we meet when the book leaps forward in time to the recent past. As the novel relates the backstories and present conflicts of several of these descendants we gradually understand why the clan attempts to reform and finally put this curse to rest. This deeply compelling and fascinating story describes the way oral history and local mythology continues to play a part in the daily lives and complicated political attitudes of people in Uganda today.

I was impressed by the way Makumbi organised the stories and characters in a way which is mostly easy to follow despite the intricate complexities of this tale. As with most big epics, it helps that there is a family tree at the beginning of the book to refer back to. Nevertheless it can be difficult to keep track of them all because (like when reading a big Russian saga) many characters have a few different names or nicknames. One character’s name is actually changed multiple times between his birth and his independent decision as a teenager to take a different surname. Matters are complicated a bit more because many of the characters are twins so it can be hard at times to sort out the relationships between people and the multiple branches of this large family. But Makumbi has that wonderful gift as a storyteller of drawing you into the immediate dilemmas of her characters so it’s like you can imaginatively see them in a three-dimensional way and, even if you don’t immediately grasp their exact placement within the family, you are still gripped by the drama of their situation.

Story-telling and the way stories morph over time is such an integral part of this novel. I found it quite moving how the book begins by showing the reality of the legendary Kintu and his family and then moves to the present where his tale has been mythologised and takes on different versions. The way the “curse” manifests within the lives of his different descendants reflects poignantly on their situations either as a religious fanatic whose sect is rapidly shrinking, a scholar who lived in political exile throughout the heinous killings of Idi Amin’s regime, a woman haunted by a sexual attack or a man terrified that he may be HIV+. The differences between these characters reflect the wide diversity of attitudes, beliefs and economic positions of citizens in Uganda today. Class conflicts felt between the Tutsi population and other groups reverberates from Kintu’s time all the way through to the present. But I particularly appreciated how many of the characters stand out as individuals (not just representatives of specific social issues). For instance, there’s a particularly powerful depiction of a strong warrior leader during Kintu Kidda’s time whose bisexuality is practiced openly and a daughter of the family in the current time period who is a notorious military leader.


I enjoyed the way “Kintu” incorporates history into the present day lives of its character as a way of showing how people in Uganda might differently express their sense of national identity. As a country that gained independence from Britain in the early 1960s and then suffered from a military coup and a dictator's rule in the 70s, different political parties have warred between whether the country should remain a republic or revert to their distinct pre-colonial kingdoms. At one point a character explains: “After independence, Uganda – a European artefact – was still forming as a country rather than a kingdom in the minds of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabaka Muteesa II was made president of the new Uganda. Nonetheless, most of them felt that ‘Uganda’ should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kabaka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it.” Makumbi's novel provides a compelling overview of Uganda's internal struggles over national identity while also drawing the reader into the particular conflicts that her dynamic characters face.

“Kintu” is a novel that requires a lot of concentration, but contains many delights, psychological insight and drama that I found consistently entertaining while providing a compelling look at a fascinating country.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment

There's something about a well-told family saga that I find so immersive and emotionally moving. It gives not only a powerful sense of people's lineage with aspects of personality, physical traits and heirlooms passed through those generations, but also the movement of time. By following the flow of passing generations in a way that we're unable to locked in the immediacy of our own lives, we're keyed into what might have been, the struggles endured and the sacrifices made so that we can live. Novels can anchor these stories of multiple generations in larger themes about the way society has changed over the years as in Neel Mukherjee's “The Lives of Others” which portrays the impact the Naxalite movement in Bengal had upon one family, Matthew Thomas's “We Are Not Ourselves” which shows the lasting effect of alcoholism in an Irish immigrant family in NYC, Sara Taylor's “The Shore” which shows the transformation of an island over many generations and Joyce Carol Oates' “Bellefleur” which gives a sense of capitalism's connection to the American dream. Now, Yaa Gyasi has created such an inventive well-written debut novel which follows the lineage of two African sisters separated at birth and the history of the slave trade over centuries.

One thing I find so moving about a family saga like this is the way it conveys the tremendous fragility of life and importance of personal choices. Not only do these things affect an individual's destiny, but also the destiny of all the generations which will proceed that person. This shows how the element of chance has such a strong impact upon the world. It's observed at one point “How easy it was for a life to go one way instead of another.” “Homegoing” really begins with a calamitous event which sees two sisters separated – one grows up in a semi-prosperous family where the daughter is promised in marriage to a powerful man and the other belongs to a tribe where she's captured and forced into slavery. It's only through a twist of fate that one thrives and the other suffers horribly. But just because the progeny of these women were born in particular circumstances doesn't mean they are fated to a certain path in life. Through acts of will the subsequent generations shape their own fates and fortunes which consequently heavily influence their own children.

Even though Gyasi follows the individual stories of more than a dozen members of this family through the centuries I was so impressed how it never felt overwhelming or confusing. It's a mark of a great writer that can introduce characters who feel fully formed and already familiar. This is true not only for the family members but also many notable periphery characters including Cudjo (an athletic man with latent same-sex desires) and Esther (a wonderfully garrulous woman who coaxes a historian to express his emotions more). The narrative switches back and forth between each subsequent generation of the sisters' family lines. Many stories build a sense of suspense as you discover the fates of the previous generations during the course of each new family member's story. Key objects such as two stones given to the sisters at the beginning travel through the generational lines as well as songs which are passed down from one child to the next. The initial meaning of an object or song might be lost, but the connection to that family history remains. Certain images also poignantly recur over the stories; it's observed of one early family member Fiifi that “he wore his silence like a golden crown” and then, many generations later, a woman named Willie sings “I shall wear a crown”. These references all add tremendously to the pleasure of the overarching story which the reader is keyed into when the characters are not.

It's fascinating learning particular details about the history of warring tribes (primarily the Asantes and Fantes tribes) in Ghana and how some tribes worked with the white colonialists to capture and sell slaves. A physical colonial castle in Ghana (Cape Coast Castle) which the slave trade was facilitated through becomes a focal point for the families involved in this story. In a way it takes on a fairy tale quality like Bluebeard's castle where some inhabitants live a privileged life unaware or wilfully ignorant of the horrors within the locked subterranean dungeons which hold many captured black people waiting to be sold into slavery in America and the Caribbean. This castle has subsequently become a significant destination where people from the Americas and Britain return to in order to contemplate the significant rift in identity which is colonialism and slavery's legacy. It's a fascinating coincidence that a visit to this same castle also takes place in Zadie Smith's recent novel “Swing Time”. The fact of this historic structure really drives home the reality of the true horrors and long-lasting impact of slavery. Both authors show the quixotic feelings this landmark induces for visitors in contemplating our connection to that history, but also the way it is ultimately unknowable to us.

I had the pleasure of meeting Yaa Gyasi last September at a literary salon in The Savoy.

I had the pleasure of meeting Yaa Gyasi last September at a literary salon in The Savoy.

Later generations meaningfully explore the legacy of slavery in America in particular and its history of racial conflict. When British slavery comes to an end, it's observed how “They would just trade one type of shackles for another, physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.” Gyasi powerfully shows how this legacy is borne out over generations leading to disproportionate amounts of black people in America experiencing poverty, discrimination and imprisonment. It leads one character to find that “he knew in his body even if he hadn't yet put it together in his mind: in America, the worst thing you could be was a black man. Worse than dead, you were a dead man walking.” The novel portrays the consequences of this state of being and conveys what an important influence the past has upon the present.

Yaa Gyasi is an incredibly powerful storyteller and I found the novel as a whole utterly gripping. However, even though I think the transitions from one story to the next are graceful and each family member is compellingly well-rounded in their own right, I found some stories more effective than others. In particular, the story of one woman's move to Harlem with her light-skinned husband who can pass as white felt too compressed and fast-moving to me. It seemed that this particular story needed an entire novel of its own to fully flesh out the conflicts it explores and the conclusions it comes to. But, on the whole, most of the stories work as single pieces in the grand puzzle of this dynamic and fascinating family. I grew really attached to some characters and wished the novel would stay with them longer, but the momentum of moving from one generation to the next creates a thrilling story in itself making me ultimately glad that Gyasi structured the novel in this way. As already observed from many sources after its much-lauded publication in America last year, “Homegoing” is a tremendously accomplished and intelligent debut.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYaa Gyasi
9 CommentsPost a comment

What does looking at a family tree tell us? We see ourselves linked by blood lines to a group of names, but usually there is little else to connect us to lives from the distant past other than an assemblage of faded photographs, a few heirlooms and a smattering of oral history. Rather than treat a family tree as a certainty, Sara Taylor does something quite extraordinary in her novel “The Shore” whereby she presents a family’s history as if the outcome of a family line was not the inevitability we see so neatly graphed out at the beginning of this book. The author jumbles all the pieces of one sprawling family tree up together like a jigsaw puzzle and delivers two centuries worth of tales about individuals leaping backwards and forwards in time. This effect says something much more meaningful about the will of the individual and the meaning of family connections than a straightforward linear novel could ever say. This is a family saga like none other I’ve read before.

As much as this novel is about family it is also about the land and the way in which the environment is shaped and reborn with every succeeding generation. An isolated small group of islands off the coast of Virginia is the base from which the stories of each character branch out from and round back to. It’s fascinating to see how the perilous course of the family blood line also follows the near destitution of the island itself as the economic circumstances change over time. In one memorable scene a boy watches as the community’s church is floated across the river after it is sold off by the fading population. When first confronted with the family tree at the beginning of the novel you’re aware that there are two distinct branches of the tree stemming from a single fascinating matriarch named Medora. The conflicted identity of this fiercely independent woman reverberates down through the generations. One line lives under perilous and desperate circumstances while another is more firmly established and prosperous. This is a family that is comprised of con artists, rapists, murderers, drug sellers and witch doctors. It’s high drama. Their stories make for an enthralling and emotionally compelling read.

As well as giving the reader a fascinating variety of lively stories, the novel makes larger meaningful statements about the plight of women. There is a great deal of sexism and violence exhibited by the men in this novel especially among the economically disadvantaged members of the family. It’s noted that it seems to be a tragic inevitability of a male’s development that “something happens in the gap between boy and man to turn all that sweetness bitter. You wonder if it’s a necessary hardening, like a tree’s shedding of leaves as winter approaches.” Certainly not all the male characters in this novel are villains and there is a balanced, complex view of both sex and sexuality here. But many female characters’ suffering is perpetrated by men who seek to dominant them. 

One generation of the family ferments apples to produce brandy in defiance of Prohibition laws.

One generation of the family ferments apples to produce brandy in defiance of Prohibition laws.

One of the most troubled and tragic characters named Ellie soberly remarks of her dangerous partner at one point: “He hates me and he wants me and he hates that he wants me.” As beset by some of the female characters become by their circumstances and the men they are with there is a knowledge gained from the next generation of women who take dramatic measures to ensure they aren’t entrapped by the same sexism that their mothers experienced. This effect is mirrored in both the start and end of the family line in a way which says something quite tragic about the persistent state whereby men will always try to control women despite the progression of society. Yet it also says something hopeful about the resilience and ingenuity with which bloodlines survive through the willpower of women.

Most of the stories which comprise this novel are firmly fixed in the nitty-gritty of life concerning work, love and establishing a family. But some of the tales dip into the fantastic so one woman is haunted by the spectres of ghostly boys that both threaten and support her. In another tale we learn about a secret talent of the family line for controlling and altering the weather. Sometimes the style feels like Charlotte Bronte and other times it’s reminiscent of a more modern sensibility like what's found in David Mitchell's writing. The narrative voice varies more wildly as some chapters stay inside a character’s uniquely-voiced point of view while other chapters are narrated from a more even-handed impersonal distance. I didn’t feel this was always successful particularly in a chapter told in the second person which had some very effective passages but became quite confused. Part of me wishes Taylor maintained a constant narrative style throughout the novel as it would seem less chaotic and make it easier to follow. However, part of the fun of this book is trying to locate who you are following now based on the date given and names around the characters involved. A reader’s participation is required. The book ends with an entirely new style of narration and takes the story into a whole other kind of genre that adds a level of poignancy when looking back on that initial family tree.

It's always felt to me that at the centre of Anne Tyler's novels about genteel middle class Baltimore life there is horrific fear. What if this life you've worked so hard for is something you wake up wanting to escape from? What if the people closest to you and the family you've known all your life turn out to be strangers? Tyler presents these insolvable dilemmas by following the daily life of her characters while also acknowledging the absurdity and uselessness of the questions. Of course there are a multitude of possibilities in life and we can't choose them all because we're caught in the unstoppable flow of time which necessarily limits the options we have. Even though we can spend our lives with people we're linked to by blood or marriage and we can know their habits, we cannot know what's truly in their hearts. In Tyler's fiction people can walk out the door one evening to become someone new or wake in the morning to see that their partner of forty years is someone they've always hated. It's this daily risk which makes the finely constructed domestic detail of her narratives both terrifying and thrilling.

In “A Spool of Blue Thread” she takes a new approach to this by writing a family saga which moves backwards through the generations. At the start we're introduced to the Whitshanks who live in the perfect suburban home. They have four adult children, but it's their third child Denny who is the wayward black sheep. He flashes in and out of family's life unable to settle. Unsurprisingly, it's the troubled child which gets the most attention and therefore draws resentment from his siblings. Tyler then shifts focus to the mother Abby. She writes about Abby and Red's uncomfortable transition from old age to elderly. The family rally together to decide how to care for their parents Red and Abby while still allowing them to maintain their independence. Finally the story moves back to the family's origin: Red's parents Junior and Linnie with their mysterious past. At the centre is the Whitshank family home, an idealized space built by Junior himself for a middle class family and gradually purchased for his own family. The home is passed through the generations as a symbol of self-creation, a quintessential American family who started with nothing and have formed a lineage with many branches.

This novel in triptych form reminds me of Gauguin's incredible painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? from the way it unpretentiously displays every stage of life and multiple generations. At the same time it quietly asks these fundamental questions about the nature of being. Tyler is also cleverly disentangling the myth of the idealized nuclear American family. On the surface, the Whitshanks give an impression of established stability. Yet, everything about them was acquired, if not exactly immorally, but on the sly. Junior schemed to purchase the family home from the Brills, the family he worked for. Red's sister Merrick connived to gain the wealthy husband her good friend intended to marry. A child who is suddenly made an orphan is taken into the Whitshank home and raised as one of their own without any formal adoption taking place. These are all things which the family have appropriated as aspirational accessories to present themselves to the world as who they want to be. The great tension in this novel is between becoming and being. Whether you have truly earned what's in your life or not, when do the people/things around you turn from a symbol of what you want to become into a fundamental part of who you are?

The impressive thing is how lightly Tyler addresses all these concerns in her writing. There is nothing ponderous about her narrative at all filling it with so much detail about the delicate balance of family relationship and the minutiae of daily life. She includes a good degree of humanity and humour into her prose. When recounting one of the two stories which are marked as vital to the family's oral history, Tyler writes of Junior: “In 1936, he fell in love with a house. No, first he must have fallen in love with his wife, because he was married by then.” This sort of wry observation has all the humorous qualities which you can recognize as characteristic of a tale endlessly retold over the dinner table. Only later in the novel does it take on a darker quality. There is a fine balance to the way the family narrates their own story in this novel and the facts of their history which are doled out by Tyler herself.

Many of Tyler's observations about her characters behaviour come across as true to life, things you can relate to yourself or things which you can recognize as similar to people you know. There is the odd occasion when she does slip. When describing in parentheses an example of one character's generosity of spirit she remarks: “(He traded his new bike for a kitten when Jeannie’s beloved cat died.)” It makes me wonder, what sort of transaction would estimate a bike as equivalent value to a kitten – animals which are notoriously given away for free when a family has a cat that's given birth? And even if a trade like this did take place what parent would allow their young boy to make it? Aside from some small quibbles I had at times, Tyler's characters come across as well-formed and relatable.

In this novel's best moments it has all the heft and pleasures of “To the Lighthouse.” Virginia Woolf was a writer who cherished the physical detail and small interactions of life because these tiny realities are the line of life. They add up to saying something substantial and meaningful about existence. “A Spool of Blue Thread” gives us a deep insight into the type of family you could live next door to. At the lake where the Whitshanks vacation every summer there is a family who rent a cabin adjacent to them. They see them every year, but never make contact. Instead they observe subtle changes about how the family grows and changes from a distance. The Whitshanks feel that their story is parallel to their own, but essentially unknown. Tyler's writing is about making that contact where polite society does not. In doing so, she shows all the passion and fear that is a part of every family life.

Do you ever finish a novel and feel so close to the characters that it’s like you’re suddenly in mourning because your experience with them has ended? That’s the feeling I had after I read the final page of Matthew Thomas’ “We Are Not Ourselves.” Part of the reason I felt so attached to the central characters in this book is because this is quite a lengthy family saga and so it was as if I travelled through every crucial stage of their lives. It follows three generations of a family starting with a hard-drinking Catholic Irish couple in New York City in the 50s and ending in 2011. This novel traces one family’s journey but primarily focuses on a woman named Eileen. She’s a woman I felt very close to because her background closely mirrors that of my own mother who is also of Irish heritage and grew up in that city during the 50s and 60s. Born into a difficult working-class background, Eileen is a tough-spirited intelligent woman who seeks to live out the American dream by establishing a secure middle class lifestyle for herself and her family. However, her idealism crumbles amidst the harsh realities of life and the compromises one must make to keep a family together.

The author is in many ways a very traditional novelist relating his story in descriptive eloquent prose which draws you into the reality of his characters. This isn’t at all a bad thing. By evoking the sensations of their experiences and succinctly capturing their thoughts he admirably grounds the reader in not only what it felt like to physically live in these changing eras of American life, but also experience the influence of the cultural attitudes and ideologies of those times. The tight-knit but relatively poor Irish community Eileen is born into gradually morphs over the decades into a much more diffused suburban lifestyle where families live in comparative isolation. Much later in the novel when Eileen likes to spend time in chain coffee shops she observes that “People were islands even when they sat together.” This transformation is particular to Eileen’s journey but also generally follows economic and social changes of the times. Matthew Thomas shows that the desire for suburban tranquillity is entirely understandable because of the very difficult reality which Eileen comes out of where “Everyone needed something to believe in.” Unfortunately, the thing she believes will give her the stability she desires turns out to be something of an illusion.

The testing circumstances Eileen lives under in her youth seem to her entirely natural and a hard reality that must be endured until she discovers that “There were places, she now saw, that contained more happiness than ordinary places did. Unless you knew that such places existed, you might be content to stay where you were.” She’s dazzled by the promising beauty of Christmas displays in shop windows, the prestige which accompanies wearing a mink coat and indulgently takes tours of properties for sale which are much more expensive than anything she could afford. Particular areas of the city change greatly over the time period covered in the novel and witness the influx of many minority groups. While Eileen always admired her father for taking a stand on issues of racism, she can’t help worrying about how the changing neighbourhood affects property prices. In one striking scene she has a vociferous outburst towards a young group of minorities who defend themselves saying that they were also born here. Later she fabricates a memory of this encounter in her mind to align with a stereotypically prejudiced idea of how she feels threatened by other racial groups. It’s a sobering portrait of how discrimination isn’t usually exhibited through outright racism, but influences opinions and even transforms memory due to paranoia and fear.

It comes as no surprise that when Eileen finally moves to a neighbourhood she deems respectable and inhabits the house of her dreams, the illusion of perfection quickly crumbles. As the author remarks: “So much of life was the peeling away of illusions.”  This is closely tied to the way in which capitalism so often works where idealistic visions are marketed to seem so appealing, but once ownership takes place the desired object suddenly seems shabby and disappointing. The cherished mink Eileen pines after feels stuffy, over-hot and not worth wearing once she’s actually acquired it. More seriously, she comes to realize that the society she is a part of won’t actually sustain her and her family in times of medical need. In a passage which is uncharacteristic in this novel because of what a bluntly damning indictment it is Matthew Thomas writes:

“She’d worked her whole life and diligently socked away, from the age of fifteen on, 10 percent of every paycheck she’d ever gotten, and still her family’s fortunes could be ruined overnight because the American health care system – which she’d devoted her entire professional career to navigating humanely on behalf of patients in her care, and which was organized in such a way as to put maximum pressure on people who had the least energy to handle anything difficult – had rolled its stubborn boulder into her path.”

The author is keenly aware of the financial strains of ordinary hard working people who encounter tragic circumstances. Because there isn’t a structure in place to support them when they need it most, their suffering is compounded by the extra hardships they must take on simply to survive. Loving couples must contemplate financially strategic ways of outwitting the system, but which are demoralizing to their way of life. Both the worker and the workplace suffer because a sick employee can’t afford to take the time off or leave his/her job at times when they are incapable of adequately fulfilling their responsibilities. Intelligent individuals fall prey to the scams of con-artists in order to find the emotional solace which can’t be found elsewhere. The author cleverly embeds these larger social issues into his mesmerising narrative about this family’s struggle.

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (a character named Ed's favourite painting)

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (a character named Ed's favourite painting)

Another interesting point not often written about which Matthew Thomas raises is issues of male body image. A socially-awkward boy named Connell is somewhat overweight and struggles to lose weight. He becomes very disciplined working out whenever possible. This sort of pressure to conform to a certain type though the body is still developing is (quite rightly) written about a lot in relation to how girls are put under social pressure to look a certain way, but it’s not as much written about in relation to men. It’s something the author handles delicately and gives a dynamic viewpoint about because it’s a struggle he deals with in solitude without his parents being aware of it. Connell is also a character I felt close to because later on when he takes a job he does all he can to read in secret when there isn’t anything he needs to do in the workplace – something I know all about!

What this sweeping novel captures beautifully is a unique perspective on our motivation for living. Rather than become engrossed in entirely selfish pursuits in life this book offers refreshingly agnostic ideas about the satisfaction which accompanies working to achieve a sense of self respect: “The point wasn’t always to do what you want. The point was to do what you did and to do it well.” The ordinary people Matthew Thomas writes about are shown to be extraordinary in the way they carry on through challenging circumstances. The novel meaningfully addresses dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease as a reality with a lot of practical difficulties and emotionally testing circumstances. Including this issue also naturally raises a lot of existential questions about the meaning of the self and what one’s life amounts to when that self is lost. Maintaining a sense of integrity in one’s self and one’s actions is shown to be what really matters – not the material wealth or status which is seen so often as the end goal of the American dream. A character observes that “There is more to live for than mere achievement. It is worth something to be a good man.” It’s a lesson that’s hard to learn. “We Are Not Ourselves” contains stories about good hard working people who sometimes make foolish decisions, but strive to keep their honour and family together. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMatthew Thomas
4 CommentsPost a comment

It feels fortuitous that I happened to read Lahiri’s “The Lowland” directly before beginning Neel Mukherjee’s magisterial family epic “The Lives of Others.” Before last week, to shamefully admit my ignorance, I didn’t know about the left wing/communist revolts which took place in Bengal in the late 1960s. In both these novels this movement plays a prominent role. While Lahiri deals primarily with the reverberating effects of one son’s involvement in the uprising long after the event, Mukherjee’s novel delves into the thick of it over those crucial few years at the end of that decade. These are two very different novels, but in some ways Mukerjee’s novel works as sort of an inverted mirror to Lahiri’s book when considering issues of emotional and physical proximity within families. Lahiri’s novel features a large family house which stands virtually empty after expectations that it will be passed on from progenitor to progenitor are spoiled when it’s abandoned by the two sons. Mukherjee’s novel also has a large house at its centre which is filled to the brim with a squabbling family (except one notably absent son) none of who seem able to escape from each other. There are many floors to the house which are inhabited by different generations of the Ghosh family many of whose status and socio-economic position within the family varies wildly from person to person. Over the course of this large, ambitious and brilliant novel we become very familiar with each idiosyncratic family member, the servants who dwell within the house and the idealistic son who left to join a revolution.

Personally, I love a good immersive family epic such as Marquez's “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Oates' “Bellefleur” or Ann-Marie MacDonald's “Fall on Your Knees.” I saw Mukherjee in conversation at the Southbank Centre earlier this week (he's fascinating to listen to in person and very articulate about writing) and he said that one of the greatest literary inspirations for this novel is Mann's Buddenbrooks (which is a book I sadly haven't read yet.) When I first opened the book and saw a family tree charted out I felt excited at the prospect of getting sunk into a family drama. The Ghosh family is certainly filled with drama. The great patriarch of the family Prafullanath was cut out of his own father's lucrative business and became a self-made man building a paper manufacturing empire. His imperial wife Charubala rules over her five children who grow to become very different individuals, many with children of their own. Like in many families who expect the eldest son to take the reigns of the family business, the Ghosh's son Adinath would rather pursue his own interests than fitting into a slot his father has devised for him. The second son Priyo tries to organize his father's various factories but is distracted by his own hidden sexual interests. Sister Chhaya is a fantastically bitter woman who often sees herself in opposition to the world because of her dark skin and crossed eyes. “Chhaya carried tales, not all of which were innocent. She got a thrill out of poisoning people’s minds and playing them off against each other.” She crafts ways to dominate, humiliate and control those around her. Fourth son Bholanath uses his influence at one of his father's factories to support a burgeoning literary group with devastating financial consequences. Youngest son Somnath has a wilful sadistic side and meets a surprising fate. This group of children combined with the individual wives of the sons, their children and the various servants who work in the house create a raucous symphony of conflicting aspirations and values. I could write a lot about each of these fascinating characters, but you need to dive into the intricate plot to fully understand them all. There are also many more characters, many of whom are the type to fall between the cracks of society such as a “mad” mathematics professor Ashish Ray who roams the streets overcome by a darkness in his mind. You can see why Mukherjee requires such a long novel to fully do all his characters justice.

It's Adinath and his wife Sandhya's eldest son Supratik who breaks from this over-flowing home and demands his own narrative which is written in the first person. His story is slotted between chapters which feature the rest of the family and describes his time becoming involved in the communist party, working on back-breaking jobs in rural areas and getting involved with terrorist activities. The age-old conflict of parents who want their children to establish a secure future in the family and carry their values clashes against the child's idealistic views of the world. At one point Sandhya confronts her son stating: “The rile of the world is to look after your family, your elders, your children, and see that you do the best you can for them all the time.” To which Supratik, mimicking the ideology he's read about, replies: “Has the thought ever crossed your mind that the family is the primary unit of exploitation?” Supratik believes in sacrificing oneself for the greater good over carrying on his family's legacy. It breaks Sandhya that she loses her son so totally. The mysterious process by which children grow to diverge from their parents' intimate embrace is handled so skilfully by the author. The refrain for any helpless parent who witnesses the long process of their child turning into a stranger is summed up with this question asked at one point in the narrative: “Did one ever know the mind and soul and personality of one’s child, even little segments of them?”

One of the difficult duties of any great writer is to describe the way in which language itself isn't able to sufficiently serve the characters he portrays. There are intricacies of emotion experienced which can't be expressed other than in the actions of the character and their surrounding environment. Through the spaces between sentences we glean an understanding about truth which can't be described with words, but which is most definitely there. At one point in the narrative a character “felt himself fall into the gap between feelings and their articulation in language.” Mukherjee captures his characters moving through their particular time and space grappling with sensations which can't be expressed, but which impact upon the way they negotiate with the world and each other. One quote I love in particular is from a scene where Chhaya confronts her mother Charubala about the fact of her own ugliness.

“Were love, compassion, pity expressible? How? Charubala certainly did not know. Love and affection were not particular instances of their manifestations, but rather the entire world one moved around in, an atmosphere. How could you isolate something so brutally flat and one-dimensional, such as words, from a kind of sky, which was intangible, both there and not there?”

Charubala finds herself unable to console her child the way she wishes because the complexity of her feeling and love cannot be so simply conveyed. Language has a way of sometimes failing when we most need it. That Mukherjee is able to show this while also conveying a density of emotion that draws you into the character's experience is a powerful accomplishment.

“The Lives of Others” contains a wealth of detail that resurrects a very specific time and place where huge swaths of people found themselves in desperate circumstances and their way of life in upheaval. Mukherjee elucidates the complex political movements of the time by framing them within one particular family's story in a way that challenges the way you think but is fully accessible, informative and beautifully written. The startling and brutal opening section of the novel acts as a bleak reminder of what's really at stake throughout the rest of the book. The fortunes of families can fall so drastically that they can be obliterated completely. The Ghosh family's dramatic downfall captures the complexity of these few years of life in Bengal and makes for an enthralling richly-layered story that I fully sank into.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNeel Mukherjee
3 CommentsPost a comment