In preparation for this, Anuradha Roy’s fourth novel, I have re-read with pleasure her previous three. This new book continues her examination of Indian society and attitudes to caste, race, religion, wealth and, perhaps above all as in her new novel, the status of women. All four books demonstrate a quiet power: Roy doesn’t shriek her polemical points at you, but by careful delineation of her characters develops plot and purpose.
In ‘All The Lives We Never Lived’ the narrator, Myshkin, looks back at his life through the prism of his mother’s. It won’t take anything away from readers’ enjoyment to know that the story hinges on two events: the independent and artistically inclined Gayatri’s abandonment (the year is 1937) of her home and nine-year-old son for a new life on Bali, and (decades later) on the death of a family friend the passing into Myshkin’s hands of a cache of his mother’s letters. By virtue of these developments in the distant and recent past, what actually happened is reconstructed piece by piece.
In this novel the personal and the political collide against the background of approaching world war. The writing is restrained yet rich, the characters fully etched, varied and recognisably real. I’d recommend all the author’s books, and this may be her best yet.
“I don’t mind. This is what I’m leaving the world, I think to myself in grandiose moments such as these, when I sit with paper and pen before me, only the words, I, Myshkin Chand Rozario, written down. I am leaving the world trees that cover the town with shade, fruit, flowers. I am old enough to have watched saplings I planted grow into trees forty feet high.”
Fiction and history overlap in here. This is a tale filled with quirky and charming characters as well as more sinister elements too. The main character looks back on his childhood in India. A problem with the technique of people thinking back to the distant past, is when people then think back from that past to a further past, and what I found at times with this was that I got lost within stories within stories and histories within histories, and it got a little cluttered with too many characters.
“Some people have no time for what doesn’t match their view of the world. They think they know all there is to know and nobody can bring them anything new. They squeeze the joy out of life, dry it up, and chop it into a set of pellets they call rules. What is a good picture, what is a good book, what is the food you should eat-they know it all.”
The unfortunate protagonist is lumbered with two appallingly ill-equipped, excuses for parents who appear to treat the job of parenting as a passing fad and disregard it in order to go onto lead the life they want, with little to no regard for their own son. But of course as we see in here, there is a lot more to it than this.
Roy’s description really gives us a sense of the tropical surroundings of Bali and India, at times we are treated to a sensory buffet as the exotic fauna and flora is brought to life with a pleasing flourish. There is plenty of political commentary in here too, but I found that there were too many times where I was wondering where this story was really going, and I found we were taking up a lot of time and pages to not get very far at all, a problem I have found with other sub-continental writers. There is a fine line between epic story-telling and waffling. I am not saying that Roy waffles in here, but there certainly was no epic story-telling.