Domestic rhythms: queue outside a Bombay dry food store in the 1970s. Photo: Getty
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A dazzling portrayal of domestic strife: The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

In this novel of political activisim in 1960s Calcutta, Mukherjee's writing has fluent precision and a fine ear for the chaos of family life.

The Lives of Others
Neel Mukherjee
Chatto & Windus, 528pp, £16.99

Neel Mukherjee’s first novel, the prize-winning A Life Apart, had as its protagonist a young man, Ritwik Ghosh, who left the clamour of his extended family in Calcutta for a life of hazardous solitude. Mukherjee’s second novel plunges the reader directly into the maelstrom of Bengali family life that Ritwik fled. The protagonist of The Lives of Others is not an individual but the many-headed hydra of the (unrelated) Ghosh clan. Once wealthy, the family is now in decline but it remains prosperous enough to occupy a large house in Bhow­anipore, a genteel neighbourhood of Calcutta, where the days are spent in tireless spiteful intrigue.

The main narrative is set between 1967 and 1970, a time of political unrest in the city, when the Maoist Naxalite movement gained supporters among students and intellectuals. A prologue set in 1966 describes the convulsive despair of a debt-ridden peasant farmer, Nitai Das, whose wife and children are starving. His story is one incident among many that ignited the revulsion of the Naxalites at the intolerable contrast between their privileged lives and those of the unregarded suffering masses around them.

The Ghosh household consists of an elderly paterfamilias, Prafullanath, enfeebled by stroke and tormented by the pointless chatter of the garrulous, long-serving household major-domo. With his shrewish wife, Charubala, Prafullanath has four sons (the adored Somnath, the youngest, is now dead) and a clever daughter, whose startling plainness has left her unmarried and embittered. A sextet of grandchildren includes Sona and Kalyani, the son and daughter of Somnath’s widow, Purba, the daily victim of Charubala’s formidable talent for bullying.

A resounding absence in the household is that of Supratik, the eldest grandson, a taciturn 21-year-old politics student: “The opacity of his inner world, its unknowable resilience, makes [his mother] Sandhya fear far more for him than any mother should for her child.” She is right to be afraid. After a troubling – and to Sandhya incomprehensible – conversation about social inequality, Supratik vanishes. The only signs of his continued existence are two brief postcards.

But to one family member he reveals more. In a series of letters written (but never sent) to his young aunt Purba, with whom he is in love, Supratik details his Naxalite activism. “Being a Bengali,” he writes, “one is surprised when all the endless spume and froth of talk suddenly reveals itself to be the front of a gigantic wave of action.”

At first, Supratik’s activism is more of a ripple than a wave. With a group of fellow students, he leaves Calcutta to work with landless peasants in West Bengal, helping in the fields where the wretched Nitai Das slaughtered his family and attempting to organise the peasants into armed struggle. Despite the hardships of the life, there is an innocence about the students’ youthful idealism, which only slowly takes a darker tone.

Back in the household at 22/6 Basanta Bose Road, a different darkness is gradually revealed: the seething family rivalries, the perverse complicities and the impregnable narrowness of vision that has fuelled Supratik’s revolutionary fervour. His own political engagement is not devoid of meanness. Returning to the family home, he calculatedly betrays a character to whom he should feel bound by ties of childhood affection and class solidarity.

Mukherjee’s first novel was contrapuntal in form and The Lives of Others, though much more ambitious in scope, is similar in structure: the narrative of the Ghosh family’s decline is punctuated by Supratik’s despatches to Purba. The writing is unfailingly beautiful but the device seems slightly strained. Would even the most lovelorn young revolutionary commit himself to paper in such reckless detail?

It is in the depiction of the teeming Ghosh household that the fluent precision of Mukherjee’s writing is most powerful. The opening passage, in which the house stirs into life at dawn, resembles a tone poem in its dazzling orchestration of the crescendo of domestic racket. His eye is as acute as his ear: the physicality of people and objects is delineated with a hyper-aesthetic vividness that becomes agonising when the activity described is coprophilia, as in one passage; or the torture of Supratik in a police cell.

Two epilogues provide a half-sardonic, half-melancholy commentary on the events of this extraordinary chronicle. The first is a newspaper report from 1986 of a mathematics prize awarded to Purba’s son, Sona, a former child prodigy, now a reclusive 30-year-old professor of pure mathematics at Stanford University.

The other, dated 2012, describes a terrorist act by a group of Naxalite activists who derail the Ajmer-Kolkata Express using a method pioneered by Supratik, now revered as a martyr of the revolution. All the noisy intensity of the Ghosh clan is distilled, it seems, into this pair of opposed activities: on the one hand, the solitary pursuit of pure reason; on the other, the equally tenacious pursuit of hatred, anarchy and revenge.

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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