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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.

Sunday Salon – a good week all round

It’s been a good week on the literature and arts front. I finally got the time to watch part of the BBC’s Hollow Crown series of Shakespeare’s history plays. Richard II was excellent – it doesn’t have the same level of dramatic action as Henry V for example, but BBC did a superb job of showing the dramatic tension between Richard’s belief in the divine right of kings and his realisation he doesn’t have the support to continue on the throne. Henry IV part 1 and part 2 were also good. I’m not a fan of the Falstaffian tavern scenes but this was one of the best I’ve seen. Just Henry V to go now and I love that play!

Also had a live Shakespeare experience courtesy of the National Theatre of Wales who too occupancy of an aircraft hangar to give a performance of Corialanus. We were all kitted with headsets at the start of the performance which was done in promenade style, using hand held video cameras. It meant we got very close up to the action so the angry scenes between Corialanus and the plebeians felt very real. Excellent experience.

On the book scene, I finished reading two novels from the Man Booker Prize 2012 long list – Bring Up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel) and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. I just posted my review of the latter today (it’s a superb book and I highly recommend it). I’ll post a review of Mantel’s work next week but that was also superb although in a very different style.  Saraswati Park was a leap in the dark – I had never heard of this author but found it recommended in an article about novelists of Indian origin and thought it sounded good. It proved to be another engaging experience – you can see my blog review here.

After three good books in a row, I’m a bit nervous about my next read – can my luck hold out??

Saraswati Park: An Intimate Portrait

My enjoyment of novels set in India has continued with Saraswati Park,  the debut novel by Anjali Joseph.

Set in Bombay it features  Mohan who in an age of electronic communication, sits under a tree near the post office and writes letters for the illiterate. His children have left home, his marriage to Lakshmi has become dull, and he seeks respite in collecting books and dreaming of a day when he can write his own book based on the stories that come to him in his sleep. He derives small pleasure by visiting the street vendors who sell 2nd hand books at Fountain area and ccollecting 2nd hand books (especially those with wide margins so he can make notes). It’s a habit which irritates his wife.

But she too is a collector, covering the surface of their kitchen table with bottles and jars of food.  Her outlet from the endless round of domestic chores lies in the TV soap operas she increasingly fills her day watching. In a telling moment about the narrow circle of her life she reflects that

…her relationship with the shirts, neatly ironed and folded, was so much more direct than any other interaction”.

Into the humdrum lives of this couple, comes their 19 year old nephew Ashish. He’s a young man adrift in the world, unable to focus on his final year studies in literature, who allows himself to be seduced by a more wealthy student. But as quickly as that relationship starts, Ashish finds himself abruptly rejected and subjected to the sniggers of other students. He similarly sleep walks into his next relationship, this time with the more experienced, world wise professor who is meant to be tutoring him for the upcoming exams.

Ashish is the catalyst for the narrative development. He is the instigator of Mohan’s first efforts to become a writer and the outlet for his aunt’s affection and it’s his presence that sustains Mohan through the troubled months when he fears Lakshmi has left him.

Saraswati Park is an endearing portrait of these three very ordinary people; intimate and at times wry in its observations as they discover  themselves and learn what matters most to them.

But there is a fourth – equally important – character in this novel: the city of Bombay itself.  Vibrant, chaotic, full of sound and movement and yet capable of delivering moments of unexpected tranquility. It’s the product of Anjali Joseph’s personal knowledge of the city – born in Bombay her years of study at Cambridge and then East Anglia have given her the  ability of objective distancing.

A deserved winner of the Betty Trask Award, Joseph is tipped by many critics to be an author to watch in the future.

Well worth reading.

A week of distractions

So many things going on this week.   Just keeping up with the progress of Team GB, Phelps and all the other men and women with unpronounceable names in lycra, is a challenge. There’s always something interesting just about to happen or a new drama unfolding.

On the home front my own domestic drama came to an end last night.  Twelfth Night ended its run  after 12 performances which means domestic normality will once again return to my house. I’ve been sharing it, not with Jeff but with his alter ego Sir Toby Belch for the last 3 months, trying to be patient as I hear Jeff rehearse his lines over and over. And sometimes getting roped into acting out all the other parts. But watching the final performance last night, it was clear how all the dedication to detail and the hours of rehearsal had come together.  Even the rain held off to bring the Everyman Open Air Festival 2012 to a close for this year. 

All of which meant I haven’t made that much progress with Bringing Up the Bodies – the only 2012 Man Booker longlisted novel it seems I’ll get around to reading before the shortlist is announced late September. The more I read of it though, the more I appreciate that this is meant to be taken slowly. It’s tempting to just keep reading but when I’ve hurried it, I’ve missed a lot of the subtleties. So I’ve decided to savour the moment instead of rushing to the end.

As a complete contrast, I’ve also started reading Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph. There are some books that you only have to read two or three pages to know you’re in for a delightful experience. This is one of them. It’s set in Bombay (I seem to be reading a lot of novels set in India this year) and i the story of Ashish, a 19-year-old who goes to live with his uncle Mohan and aunt Lakshmi in Saraswati Park, a sleepy part of the city, so that he can repeat his final year in college. Mohan earns his money by writing letters and filling in official forms for those who cannot write. His days are spent  at a table outside a busy post office but his real passion is literature and and his dream is to one day write his own book.

It’s the first published novel by Joseph and won her critical acclaim as well as a few prizes. Her second novel Another Country came out last month. She’s tipped as ‘one to watch’ .

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