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.
In 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.
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.