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Two Lives [Hardcover]

Vikram Seth
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)

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Book Description

12 Sep 2005
TWO LIVES tells the remarkable story of Seth's great uncle and aunt. His great uncle Shanti left India for medical school in Berlin in the 1930s and lodged with a German Jewish family. In the household was a daughter, Henny, who urged her mother 'not to take the blackie'. But a friendship developed and each managed to leave Germany and found their way to Britain as the Nazis rose to power. Shanti joined the army and lost his right arm at the battle of Monte Cassino, while Henny (whose family were to die in the camps) made a life for herself in her adopted country. After the war they married and lived the emigre life in north London where Shanti, despite the loss of his arm, became a much-loved dentist. During his own adolescence in England, Vikram Seth lived with Shanti and Henny and came to know and love them deeply. His is the third life in this story of TWO LIVES. This is also a book about history, encompassing as it does many of the most significant themes and events in the 20th century, whose currents are reflected in the lives of Shanti, Henny and their family: from the Raj and the Indian freedom movement to the Third Reich, the Holocaust and British postwar society.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 503 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown; 1st edition (12 Sep 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316727741
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316727747
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 822,728 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

This is an accomplished and profoundly moving work (DAILY TELEGRAPH)

Written as an act of love and duty it is a testament to his modesty and familial affection. (SUNDAT TIMES)

A fascinating and honest read. (TRIBUNE)

Seth is a thorough biographer, but his considerable narrative skill is as evident here as it is in his fiction... One of the beauties of TWO LIVES is that it transcends its subject matter, becoming a celebration of endurance, a recognition of all lives pun (SUNDAY BUSINESS POST)

Book Description

*A story of love and survival amidst the great events of the twentieth century.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
80 of 80 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
This is an extraordinary memoir of the lives of two quite ordinary people: Vikram Seth's great aunt Henny,a German Jewess, and great uncle Shanti, an Indian Hindi. I loved A Suitable Boy so it was wonderful to read the story of this great author's upbringing and inspiration. Henny is trying to find out what happened to her family during the war - Seth uses all her long-forgotten letters to document this unbearably poignant tale. Two Lives is a really fantastic book: somehow it manages to entwine strands of India, Third Reich and Second World War, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, post-war Germany and 1970s Britain. Yet, despite such a complex and rich background, the two main characters come vividly to life, particuarly because their letters and direct quotations are used liberally throughout. This way, we become intimately involved in them and their lives. I can't criticise this book - I thought it was absolutely incredible and so well told. I'd recommend it every time.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous 22 Aug 2006
Format:Paperback
Vikram Seth turns the narrative skills so evident in "A Suitable Boy" on his own family, and the result is this compelling and engaging biography. His Indian great-uncle and German Jewish great-aunt lived through a turbulent period in the history of Europe and the world, and Seth manages to make the large-scale elements - such as the battle of Monte Cassino, the fate of the Jews in Berlin and the wider Reich - and the personal details of Shanti and Henny's own stories - his career as a dentist, her correspondence with her German friends, their marriage - equally vivid. The stories are not sentimentalised, either - while Seth's great affection for Shanti and Henny is obvious, he presents the reader with a remarkably clear-eyed view of their flaws and failings as well. The whole thing presents a fresh look at a much-chronicled era.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars wide ranging and moving 17 Dec 2006
Format:Paperback
What a tour de force! I really enjoyed this mix of biography, family history and world history brought together in a beatifully told narrative. It seems particularly pertinent today as it describes the complex relationships between religions as well as family happiness and conflict. Jews, Hindus and Christians live and work together, experience love and betrayal, including the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. I have recently visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and the description of the final days of Lola's life was almost unbearable in its detail and feeling. I also enjoyed getting to know the characters and finding out more and more detail, good and bad, as the book went on. Very real because it is so complex, very respectful but also true. Politically astute and relevant, I highly recommend it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enduring Love 22 July 2007
Format:Paperback
A very moving memoir about the author's great-uncle Shanti and great-aunt Henny. He became very close to them after they welcomed him into their home, when as a seventeen year old he arrived in England to complete his education.
Through the detailed story of these `Two Lives' we learn personal details about how some of the great events of the 20C had an effect on Shanti and Henny.
Vikram Seth decided to write this story of his Uncle's enduring love for Henny, unfortunately after she had died. A chance finding of letters and photographs kept from her past enabled him to find out enough of her side of the story along with many interviews with Shanti in his latter years.
It is long at over 500 pages but I found I read it much quicker than I expected to as I was drawn into the lives of Shanti and Henny.
The details in this sensitively written biography will stay with you for a long time after reading.

I think the poem that the author dedicates to his uncle and aunt at the beginning of the book actually says it all beautifully so I am taking the liberty of reproducing it here.

TO SHANTI UNCLE AND AUNTY HENNY

Some words of yours to me suggested
How, through the fog of peace and war,
A pulse beat on, that, strained and tested,
No loss could mute, nor sorrow mar.
To trace this pulse through its confusions,
Illusions, allusions, elusions,
And limn its complex graph of love,
No skein of words is fine enough.
Does this half-filial endeavour
Hold half a chance of half-success -
Even to track your lives, much less
Not to let these recede for ever?
No, if I'd hoped to grasp the whole;
Yes, if some shard may touch the soul.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable biography 3 April 2007
By A. Hope
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an exceptional account of the lives of Shanti and Henny Seth, the author's great uncle and aunt. The book starts with Vikram Seth going to live with Shanti and Henny when he is seventeen. We are then given a wonderful insight into the lives of these two fascinating people, both born in 1908 - one in India, and one in Germany, one a Hindu, and one a Jew. It amazed me how many letters, and other documents had survived, and Vikram Seth was able to reproduce for us - and so we hear from Henny and Shanti themselves - especially Shanti - as he had given his great nephew eleven long interviews - and we have many incidents described for us in his own words. The part of the book which was most disturbing, was of course, the section about Henny and her family, and what happened to them after Henny managed to get to England just weeks before the outbreak of war in 1939. I found myself shaking my head and muttering over and over " how could people allow..." and so on - all the things we think we know about that period of Europen history is brought into stark reality.

Shanti and Henny have become as real to me, as any of my own relatives, in telling us about them Vikram Seth has done a wonderful job. He has written about these two lives, with affection, and great love, but also with real truth.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars best true story.
the author 's tenacity to research and narrate a life is remarkable and imprints a permanent picture on the reader.
Published 5 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful and Moving
This has to be one of the most powerful and moving books I have ever read in my life. Vikram Seth's biography of his aunt and uncle is told with grace and sensitivity. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Aurora
1.0 out of 5 stars Two Lives I'm not at all interested in reading about!
Autobiographies and Biographies have always interested me, so I've read many during the past 50 years. Read more
Published 11 months ago by A. M. Smithwhite
3.0 out of 5 stars It started so well.........
.......but about two thirds of the way through it seemed to get bogged down in too much detail about Henny's German friends and acquaintances and I felt it rather lost the plot. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Nightowl
4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth reading.
Two Lives is a memoir written by international best-selling author, Vikram Seth. In this interesting and engaging book, Seth writes about his great uncle Shanti Behari Seth (Shanti... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Cloggie Downunder
3.0 out of 5 stars Not yet read.
This, too, is still on the shelf, awaiting time to read. I do wonder how, when half-a-dozen books are ordered together, one of which is longer than "War and Peace", you... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Brenda Young
5.0 out of 5 stars Love it
I'm really enjoying this - it's completely different from his previous novels, being a memoir, consequently more info, less richly imaginative. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Mrs. C. J. Murray
2.0 out of 5 stars Hard going
I love vikram Seth and after hearing him on desert island discs talking about his life, I wanted to read this autobiography. Read more
Published on 6 May 2012 by Ruby
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful biography and love story
This is a really big book, and at least one review has said that it is too long and too detailed. I completely disagree, the writing is so good, the study of different cultures... Read more
Published on 28 Feb 2011 by jem
4.0 out of 5 stars Two Lives
I'm finding Two Lives a very enjoyable read. Its a bit like having a friend with whom I have a sweet, thought- provoking conversation each time I pick it up. Read more
Published on 10 Jan 2011 by km
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