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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 3 January 2012
I bought this book as I am enjoying reading books at present about cultures mixing and crossing paths, it tells the early story of Ritwick in India & then his arrival in England first in Oxford & later as an illegal worker, there is a parallel story here as well of the English woman in India.I found that there were too many names in this book for me to cope with, I admit maybe as many of the names were ones that were unfamiliar to me maybe my ability to remember them was slightly less than western names but as I have read about 12 books of a similar genre recently I don't think that was the real cause of the problem. I think the author tried to cram too much detail into this book, I enjoyed the 2 stories running parallel until the reason for the second one being there was revealed when I felt disappointed, I found the graphic details of cottaging far too much for me. I am no prude but is not something that interests me enough to keep wading through pages of it. The only redeaming features were the touching descriptions of the elderly lady who he lives with as a lodger, they were touching and moving. The violence and the circumstances in which it occurs I found implausible, the ease with which this young indian man was found on the streets of London by his unpleasant friend I found daft. On the whole although I dragged myself through this book I cannot see why it has won awards, I can only assume that some literary awards are still given to books that are hard going because something that is a good read can't possibly deserve an award!
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on 21 July 2011
I enjoyed this book and I rarely ever read books with too many unpronouncable names. The main story of the principal character was in itself interesting - a gay Indian coming to university in the UK on a limited scholarship. He describes the dislocation of a man who was english language educated but has little else in common with the native speakers. I learned a lot about day to day life in modern India and I really felt for the man throughout the book. You really feel sorry for the man as he describes his obsessive compulsion to engage in toilet sex with strangers but reading the book you learn why he has such a low opinion of himself. Contrary to some other reviews there is really nothing graphic in the book.
The main narrative is interspersed with a story he is writing to pass the time about a governess to a wealthy Indian family in the 1890s. Personally I couldn't see the point of it. Couldn't identify or care for the woman and couldn't see what it added to the novel at all. There seemed no connection. Apart from this a good informative engaging read.
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on 9 December 2011
What a fascinating, interesting and unusual debut novel about a young, gay Indian man, Ritwik, who arrives in England on a student's visa and tries to fit in with student life. How difficult and awkward he finds life here. He leaves behind a childhood of poverty, cruelty and abuse. Ritwik stays in England as an illegal immigrant, moving from Oxford to London, working as a fruit picker and a carer.

Ritwik is ill prepared for England and even less prepared for the violence and seediness simmering beneath the surface of normal London life. His shady lifestyle is graphically described as Ritwik prostitutes himself. Ritwik is using his free time by writing a novel - hence we get two books in one, as alternate chapters switch from Ritwik's own life to the book he is creating. Both books are fascinating and very different from each other.

This novel is bleak, sad and controversial; I felt deep pity for Ritwik and found the plot very moving. This book is is extremely well written and held my attention throughout. Highly recommended.
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on 14 January 2013
what a superb book (ebook) absolutely loved it. writing top notch and a great story made all the more shocking by the sad and abrupt ending. he made a great job of switching between different countries and different time periods - something which quite often doesn't work. a writer of great ability - wanted to read more from him.
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on 5 February 2010
I was bowled over by this book. I have never read anything like it and Neel Mukherjee is a writer not quite like anyone else. He tells two stories in A LIFE APART. The first story is of a young, gay man called Ritwik, who survives a childhood of poverty, abuse and great loss, and fetches up in England in the early nineties to start all over again with a clean slate. The second story, which Ritwik is writing himself to fend off his loneliness and alienation, is of Miss Gilby, a progressive Englishwoman in Raj Bengal in the early 1900s. She finds herself embroiled in the domestic politics in the house of Bimala, the woman she is teaching, but also in the larger world of Bengali nationalist movement of the time. Mukherjee makes you wait for the stories to join and then rewards the wait immensely. The way the stories join is subtle, moving and very intelligent. There is an old woman called Anne Cameron in the book who will break your heart. As will Ritwik's own story. The book is brave, truthful and bleak and I couldn't put it down. Mukherjee's style is beautiful and flawless. It really is a book like no other. A true masterpiece.
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on 26 August 2012
I am a sucker for a book that tells at least two stories at once and A Life Apart does this beautifully, offering two rough narratives of outsiders. One, a boy from a rough start in Calcutta who has made it to Oxford and is lingering dangerously past his visa in 90s London, and the other, the character he is creating for a novel, a British woman in Bengal at the turn of the last century, intent on teaching civility to the local woman but slowly becoming enveloped in the politics of the time. Normally, when writers attempt something like this the collisions between the two stories become forced. Not here, they refract just enough to leave you thinking.
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on 23 March 2010
`A Life Apart' is a book of two stories and one with many, many themes but don't let that daunt you before you have read on. The book is in part the story of Ritwik a man who survives a childhood living on the breadline in Kalighat, India. His childhood is not a happy one filled with horrendous abuse from his mother whose funeral opens the book. After his mother's death Ritwik moves to Oxford in the early nineties to study and find himself. In doing so he finds himself and in doing so starts thinking over the past and finding who he really is as he explores his sexuality and enters a dark underbelly of cottaging (quite graphic), drugs and alcohol leading into the world of illegal immigrants. There is a saviour in all this who is an elderly woman, Anne Cameron, and the relationship between her and Ritwik is one so moving and touching I can't do it justice in words, it took the book to another level.

Alternating between Ritwik's tale is also the story of Maud Gilby. Maud is a middle aged woman who moves to the British ruled Bengal of the 1900's and aims to liberate Indian women at the time and so becomes a teacher of English to rich Indian men's wives. Initially you think `how on earth can these two tales have anything to do with each other?' Well this is where I felt Mukherjee showed he was even more accomplished as the reader has to do some work to link the two, I shall say no more other than the result is a wonderful one.

It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel as to read it feels so accomplished. Unlike other books that could have made you feel almost too much is going on everything is measured and paced, themes are explored but not overly so. No puddings are overegged by Mr Mukherjee here where some authors might have gone into melodrama or overkill. The prose is both lush and stark in parts and has a wonderful flow to it. A must read, a full five stars from me, a book I would whole heartedly recommend to all of you. In fact I am tempted to say that you have to get this book right now and I don't say too often.
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on 7 November 2010
Neel Mukherjee's A Life Apart is so assured and strong that it's difficult to believe that it's his debut novel.

This isn't the only surprise about it. The main protagonist, a young man called Ritwik Ghosh, who is twenty one when we first meet him in Calcutta, is inscrutable to the last - nothing is as it seems. At the start of the story, Ritwik is attending the cremation of his mother who has died only eleven days after his father. Her demise is re-lived, with Mukherjee painting the horror of the event with ghastly power, magnifying the breathless trepidation with the clamour of panic from shouting relatives, morbid curiosity of neighbours and chaos of negotiating packed roads to hospital. The reader is sucked into the turmoil of this frenetic world where the differences from our lives - major social disparity, the suffocating atmosphere of extended family - are juxtaposed with the similarities - the fundamentals of life and death.

We learn that Ritwik, dazed by grief, had refused to carry out the traditional fire to face ritual at his father's cremation but his determination to carry out this duty at his mother's helps us surmise that there was something very unique about his relationship with his mother. We later found out there was, but it's not what we assumed.

We next meet Ritwik at Oxford University a year later, where he has won a scholarship to study English. Naive and unsure of himself, he tries his best to fit in, though even his best friend Gavin relentlessly teases him - sometimes with genuine spite - about how unworldly he is. As he struggles to comprehend regional accents and fit into this new culture, the reader again jumps to conclusions - he will be a studious mouse with tame extra-curricular activities. Wrong again. Ritwik is discovering his sexuality and has learnt he is gay but, perhaps because of the culture he comes from and his harrowing experiences as a child, he is unable to consider forming gay relationships and explores this side of himself in the most cold and anonymous way.

Interspersed and entwined with Ritwik's story is one leading up to the Partition of Bengal in 1905. This story turns out to be something Ritwik is writing; he has based it on a minor character called Miss Gilby from a book and film he has seen. Miss Maud Gilby lives in India at the time of the British Empire where her brother has a government post. She works as a governess/English teacher, and, after living in Madras for some years, she moves to Calcutta where she makes a close friend. Both women are spirited and independent and outspoken in their enthusiastic urge to encourage teaching for Indian women. Miss Gilby is then offered a post by a gentle, progressive man named Roy Chowdhury, a job that involves teaching his shy young wife Bimala English. But within a short time of taking up this post, the Swadeshi movement gathers pace in Bengal. Hindu supporters of Swadeshi oppose the Partition of Bengal proposed by the Raj and the British Empire, and to show their displeasure, they boycott all English goods and the mood becomes ugly, with violence erupting and factions forming since many Pakistani residents of Bengal relish a chance of separation from the Hindus.

Events in both stories progress to their natural conclusions, one deeply personal, the other political. Ritwik's life as a child in Calcutta is untangled, and the way stress and poverty may precipitate the worst of human behaviour is portrayed in scenes that are viscerally wrenching. The chain that abuse sometimes creates is apparent as we learn that Ritwik's violent mother herself has a malevolent mother who takes sadistic pleasure from the beatings her grandson receives, and the seed is planted that Ritwik's mother may not have had much of a maternal role model. Ritwik's father is under intolerable financial stress, having to support his wife's four scrounging adult brothers and the rest of their family indefinitely, and releases his tension by shouting at his wife, who then beats her sons raw. Mukherjee also conveys beautifully the way extremely abnormal family dynamics are not questioned by small children, for whom they are the norm.

The descriptions of the family situation are compelling. Of Ritwik's mother, Mukherjee writes 'every inch of visible tenderness had been trimmed away like fat off meat.' Her frustration is animated in terms that will be recognisable universally: 'In the kitchen she could be heard handling utensils so noisily that they were afraid she was breaking half of them.'

Mukherjee is also painfully perceptive about the myopic brutality of children, recounting how Ritwik was ashamed to be seen with his kind and generous but elderly and shabby father as a schoolboy at the private school for which his father slaved to pay.

Both the story set in India at the beginning of the 20th century and the contemporary one concern themes of personal and national identity and fulfilment. Ritwik wishes to stay in England after his degree and finds a post as a live-in carer of an old woman named Anne Cameron. Mrs Cameron is frail and befuddled by personal loss, but she has lucid moments where she reminisces about her past. Ritwik learns that she lived in India many years previously, and he becomes bewitched by her tragic story, and tenuously weaves her long-dead husband Christopher, who died of malaria in India, into the tale he is writing.

The book is not without faults. However gripping Ritwik's downward spiral is, there are aspects of it that are implausible: why would a brilliant young Oxford English graduate choose to shift into the shadows and try and earn a living as an illegal immigrant rather than applying for a job and resident's work permit which he would be most likely to have granted? In addition, the ensuing sections about the dismal existence of illegal immigrants - hanging around on cold street corners for hours, waiting for vans to transport them like cattle to low-paid jobs, absence of basic provisions such as safety, warmth and water at work - are savagely potent, but these plights have been covered by other authors.

It is the transfixing majesty of Mukherjee's prose that elevates this novel to the very special category. His writing is quite simply dazzling. Whether he is describing a bumpy ride in an old car along poorly asphalted roads or the shifty transactions effected in the shadowy London underworld, his words are riveting and startlingly evocative, conjuring up haunting visual images and a sense of nervy anticipation that keeps your eyes glued to the page. Here is the tense taxi journey in which Ritwik's semi-conscious mother is rushed to hospital:

'The taxi ...made its way to Kalighat, its wheels sending up a dense cottony billow of yellow-grey dust that, mingled with the exhaust fumes, kept blowing into the vehicle through the open windows...The roads on either side of the tram tracks were dug up in places and it was a bumpy, convoluted ride...With each jerk, Ritwik feared the clot in his mother's head was oozing out more blood, or her frangible brain-lobes juddering with the impact and disintegrating like some delicate pudding that could barely hold its shape...It was one of the busiest crossroads in the city. Pedestrians and traffic flowed into each other like indiscriminate waters; there were no demarcated spaces for either, no rules about their separation. A cow stood, calm and transcendent, in the middle of this barely moving, lawless sea of people, bicycles, autorickshaws, lorries, cars, buses, stray dogs and trams. A woman with stainless steel kitchen utensils balanced on her head shouted out her wares and tried to cross over to the other side...All these registered in Ritwik's head like separate photographs, without syntax. And above all this incessant noise of traffic and horns and human living, he could hear, as an abiding bass-line, the raucous cry of crows. He just had to shift the focus of his ears, from foreground to background, to hear the harsh, continuous cawing welling out over everything, like the slow, silent beginnings of a flood.'

And here he is on poverty:

'In Ritwik's mind, there were two types of poverty. One, the un-experienced sub-Saharan type, some sort of a shrine for the western media, with images of devoring eyes; fly-encrusted lips of children; women and men and offspring reduced to bare, forked animals, a cage of awkward stubborn bones barely sheathed in polished skin. The other was the slow drip drip drip which did not decimate populations in one fell swoop but hounded you every fraction of your time, got under your skin, into every space in your head and made you a lesser person, an edgy, jittery animal because, you see, it never finished you off but gnawed at you here and there just to remind you it was there and that you were powerless in its half-grip. Gloating and victorious, but sleazily so, poverty not as Death triumphant in a Bosch nightmare but instead, one of his low, seedy, taunting thieves.'

Mukherjee's novel is an astonishingly vivid account of a young man whose childhood abuse stains his self worth and propels him into a destructive lifestyle. His depiction of a man who is simultaneously a gentle and considerate carer of a vulnerable old woman and someone who enjoys fast, risky, anonymous sex with strangers subverts black and white tabloid morality. It may be disturbing, but his ability to convey devastating experiences in ways that make the reader feel they're experiencing them first hand make it a spectacular and breathtaking work.

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This book won a prestigious Indian literary prize although under another title. (Past Continuous) Why on earth do publishers do this? Any one like myself who has their attention brought to the book by all the publicity surrounding the prize then has the struggle to find the book, only to find it has been staring at them all the time, hidden in plain sight. Luckily I persevered, as other reviewers have said, it's very hard to believe such a multi layered book is a first novel. It is moving, heart wrenching, honest, and at times shocking. The multi layered plot works well, giving insights into the main character as you need them, rather than just being used as a writing gimmick. This is an author I think we will be meeting again in many other prize shortlists in the future. Read him before the bandwagon departs.
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on 15 January 2013
An interesting account of the trials and tribulations of an immigrant who happens to be gay. This is interspersed by an historical story of a progressive female member of the colonial community in Bengal at the end of the 19th century. In both aspects of the novel there are perceptive comments about society now and in colonial India. There are graphic descriptions of gay sex which may shock some readers. The writer is undoubtedly talented.
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