The Lives of Others does exactly what it says on the tin: it gives a wide spectrum of different but connected lives and shows how difficult it is to lay a clear path of fairness in the mess of familial, social, cultural, religious, legal, moral and emotional relations and relationships. The novel does what I hope all great literature should aspire to do: it sets ideas against practice, it shows thought muddied in the water of experience, it asks the reader to question their own easy affiliations with the world around them, and it does this through the precise rendering of characters’ thoughts and actions. The characters we meet come to us through four generations of the Ghosh family, a Bengali middle-class family living in Calcutta. We see the shifts in their social and financial standing. We see the intimate quirks of their family life.
Whilst it is typical of an Indian novel to stretch over generations – we watch them live through Indian Independence, the Independence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and specifically the Naxalite student movement in Calcutta that fed into revolutionary action in West Bengal, all the way to 2012 – Neel Mukherjee’s ability to jump between very variant perspectives and present characters whose differing standpoints and views all induce empathy is inspiring. What path should we take through a world full of such conflicting injustice?
There were times that I felt I waded through the novel, as the weight of different experience slowed my progression, but the wading is worth it. The Lives of Others is an immensely powerful and moving novel that I hope lots of people will read. I’m not sure if I want it to win the Man Booker 2014, but I’m very pleased the judges chose to put it on the short list.
This week – you may have noticed I am a day late in reviewing last week’s novel! – I will be reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. I hope to finish my review before the announcement of the Man Booker prize tomorrow night. I also would like to add that despite my mostly negative reaction to To Rise Again at a Decent Hour last week, it has motivated me to start flossing again.