The Living by Anjali Joseph [review]

chappal makers IndiaIn The Living Anjali Joseph brings us a tale of two rather unremarkable people.

Claire is a single mum living in England with a teenage son. Thousands of miles away in India lives Arun, an elderly, reformed alcoholic whose relationship with his wife and children has never been close. The one thing that connects these two individuals is their work in the shoe industry and the pride they take in turning out a quality product.

For Claire, the mass-produced shoes she assembles on a production line still deserve attention to detail:

Sometimes the shoes I check don’t fit as well with each other as they would with another left, another right. The same model, but some thing doesn’t match. I rearrange them and find another one where the rosette’s slightly off-centre, or the shape of the vamp mirrors the other one. It’s a small thing. Who’d notice? But it’s satisfying, finding the right partner.

Arun considers himself a master craftsman whose handmade chappals are meant to last  a man a lifetime.

Everything should be perfect. Why so much care forsomethingo a man will put between his feet and the ground? But the chappals will be his constant companions. He’ll spend more time with them than with his wife. The thing I make is with a man when he’s alone, unnoticed. He can rely on it. Our chapels aren’t like the cheap manufactured ones, stuck with glue; ours will be with you a long time.

Arun is in a reflective mood as he fights against the signs of advancing age. He considers the time when he betrayed his wife through an extra-marital affair, indulged in heavy drinking sessions with his friends and neglected his children. Could some of those wrong turnings have been avoided? What kind of life could he have led if he hadn’t been so stupid or shown more tenderness towards his family? In the final chapter after a meeting with an old friend and an episode in hospital, he finds a new accommodation with his life.

The livingIn alternating chapters we also experience Claire’s memories of her past and the enduring strained relationship with her mother and siblings. Flashbacks to her first love (her son’s father)  mingle with the routine of her shifts at the factory and her attempts to find a new love in her life. Romance seems to be on the cards when a stranger takes a shine to her in a pub but, like many of her other relationships peters out quickly. By the end Claire is forced to consider that happiness has all the time been staring her in the face via John, a work colleague that she’s never considered previously simply because he was always around.

Neither of these stories contains dramatic turning points or revelations; life is not like that  seems to be Joseph’s message. It’s made up of the everyday, the small moments and the small pleasures which for Arun means to to feel the sun on your face, to see your sons laugh and to be happy in the moment while for Claire it’s waking in a bed knowing that someone had been there so she didn’t have to feel alone.

The Living apparently began as a short story in Granta: India in 2015 which might explain why it feels like two disconnected stories rather than a novel. The chapters featuring Arun were a lot more interesting than those dealing with Claire – where Arun felt a fully rounded character with whom we can cry and laugh (there is a wonderfully funny scene where he succumbs to pressure from his family and finally gets to see a doctor about his prostate problem) where Claire to me felt more remote and reserved. The Living wasn’t up to the standard of her debut novel Saraswati Park which I read a few years ago (see review here) but I have a feeling she is a talent that will be worth watching for the future.

End Notes

The Living is published by 4th Estate. My copy was provided by the publishers via Net Galley. Anjali Joseph was born in Bombay but moved to England to study at Cambridge.  She graduated from the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. The Living is her third novel.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on May 5, 2016, in Book Reviews, Indian authors and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I often see books promoted as a Granta Best but since I don’t read Granta I’m not sure what that really means. What is it that confers Granta its status as a style setter and/or judge of literary quality? Who are its people? Are they more than just a bunch of editors who publish a magazine of new writing? (I’ve looked at their website but couldn’t find anything about the people who run it (except a list of who they are on their About page). What gives these people credibility? The fact that they say so-and-so is good, and sales rise out of curiosity or me-tooism, and so their predictions become self-fulfilling? Or are they genuinely widely-read experts with their finger on the pulse who have expertise in identifying great new work?
    The reason I think this matters is that generational change can mean a significant shift in perceptions of what makes something good. A literary masthead with a reputation can lose it overnight IMO if its decision-makers go down one path rather than another.
    (An example: our National Gallery of Victoria appointed a hip new editor for its members’ magazine. Now we get fewer articles about the old masters and porcelain, and more about fashion and 1950s furniture.)
    I’ve come across a few books marketed as literary fiction that are really just shallow observations about modern life & love – and ultimately unsatisfying reading – and (in the absence of anything else much to think about when reflecting on the book) I find myself wondering about the gatekeepers who let them through…

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  2. Well, obviously if she was nominated for a prestige prize there are people who think highly of her work … but I just can’t see what it is. Maybe it’s a generational thing…

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  3. As I was reading your review I wondered if Joseph had managed to connect the two narratives and you answered that question for me! Better to add Saraswati Park to the list by the sounds of it.

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  4. LOL I see that Joseph is still writing about nothing much at all. I couldn’t find anything nice to say about her second novel Another Country in my review, it was terminally inane (see https://anzlitlovers.com/2013/01/04/another-country-by-anjali-joseph/). Someone at Goodreads said it was “lacklustre and a dull bag of wind” and it baffles me why she is still being published. There must be something I can’t see in her work, but I’m unlikely ever to invest time in trying to find out what it is!

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  1. Pingback: 2017 DSC Prize for South Asian literature shortlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  2. Pingback: 2017 DSC Prize for South Asian literature longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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