A Life Apart – Neel Mukherjee

I have a soft spot for Indian literature and so when I saw the phrase ‘Winner of India’s Premier Literary Prize, The Vodafone Crossword Award 2009’ on the back of this book I picked it up straight away.

A Life Apart is essentially a coming-of-age novel focusing on Ritwik, an Indian homosexual. The story begins in 1980s India with the death of Ritwik’s mother. I was treated to a vivid Indian atmosphere and an instant sense of empathy for Ritwik. Unfortunately everything went downhill after the first chapter, but there were enough interesting passages to keep me reading through the remaining 300 pages.

After the death of his mother Ritwik decides to leave India to study in England. All that wonderful Indian atmosphere was lost and I found myself reading the type of immigration tale that I have read countless times before. Ritwik then exercised his new-found freedom by having sex with numerous strangers. These graphic encounters held no interest for me and there were several points where I considered giving up on the book entirely. I was occasionally treated to flashbacks of Ritwik’s troubled childhood in India, but these were too brief for me. I wish the whole book had concentrated on these instead of his modern, British life.

Intertwined with this narrative was Ritwik’s attempts at fiction writing. This story-within-a-story was set in 1900 and followed Miss Gilby, an English woman teaching a Bengali family:

…the most Beautiful & Useful English Language & the ways of Ladies of your Progressive Nation.

This story was well researched and I learnt a few interesting facts about Colonial life, but the characters failed to connect with me and so overall this narrative didn’t leave much impression on me either.

A Life Apart is a beautifully written piece of literary fiction, but I felt it tried to combine too many elements, leaving me unable to develop an emotional attachment to the characters.

Recommended to those with a passion for immigration stories who have a high tolerance for graphic sex scenes.

Other bloggers seemed to enjoy it much more than I did:

A must read, a full ten out of ten from me. Savidge Reads

Mukherjee’s poetically sublime prose is a real beauty to behold… Rob Around Books

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  1. Interesting take on it Jackie, and am sad to see you didn’t love it. I am amazed you didnt find this book overflowed with India because yes Ritwik leaves but the whole tale of Miss Gilby is like a historical insight into India I found. I would agree the two parts didnt gel with me initially but they came together (no plot spoiling from me) very well in the end.

    I was actually blown away by its honesty and sometimes you need a book like that. Yes some of it is quite graphic, it’s relevant to the story and the levels Ritwik has to go to, but its no more graphic than you would get in a lot of books. I think the fact it’s graphic gay sex that has caused issues with readers and yet gay readers never complain about graphic straight sex, maybe because the world is so awash with images of it that it doesnt shock any more so books like this cause a stir… and I am glad they do, ha.

    Thanks for the link back by the way!

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, I agree that many other books are just as graphic, but I’m not a fan of sex scenes in any book really – it tends to kill the mysticism/romance for me. I can tolerate the odd sex scene, but they seemed to dominate the text in this book, not just lasting for one or two pages, but at times they seemed to be endless. I’m pleased that you enjoyed it, but I’m afraid it just wasn’t for me :-(

  2. Iris says:

    “a high tolerance for graphic sex scenes

    Well, I guess this is not for me then. But it does sound interesting apart from that.

    1. Jackie says:

      Iris, Yes. With most books you can just skim the odd sex scene, but sex is a part of this book to such an extent that skimming is impossible. I’m hoping that Mukherjee writes a book set in India without any sex as I think it would be wonderful!.

  3. JoV says:

    Since I read Simon’s review, I have been meaning to pick this up. I have a soft spot for Indian literature too and like you, I can’t take too much graphic sex scenes. I echo your thoughts on this.

    1. Jackie says:

      JoV, Hopefully I’ll find some more wonderful Indian literature to enjoy soon.

  4. Jenny says:

    I have a pretty low tolerance for graphic sex scenes, which always makes me feel like a prude. :p But I love stories-within-stories–metafiction is such a draw to me. I read this fantastic book last year about a man writing a book, called Censoring an Iranian Love Story, and I thought the technique just worked so, so well.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, I’ve heard wonderful things about Censoring an Iranian Love Story. I’m keeping my eye out for it :-)

  5. Amy says:

    Too bad there wasn’t more India in the book, I definitely thought there would be. Now I’m not sure about the book!

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, There is quite a bit of India in this book, but it was all diluted by the English bits and numerous different story threads. I’d love to know your thoughts on it though. Who knows -you might like it ;-)

  6. Jenners says:

    It does sound like a book that needs a certain type of reader.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, Yes. Not one with universal appeal :-)

  7. Rob says:

    We absolutely 100% agree on this point Jackie:

    ‘I felt it tried to combine too many elements, leaving me unable to develop an emotional attachment to the characters.’

    How I yearned that the relationship between Anne Cameron to be expanded upon more. Or indeed the plight of the migrant worker in the UK.

    Beautifully written but over ambitious in terms of content.
    Thanks for the linkback

    1. Jackie says:

      Rob, There were a few wonderful bits in this book. I wish he’d picked just one or two and focused on them. I’d have liked to see more on Anne too. Hopefully his next book will be less fragmented.

      1. Rob says:

        I think he just tried to hard. Put all his eggs in one basket. Hit the overkill button. Overcooked what was potentially a delicious looking pie. Ordered too many sandwiches for the buffet. Carpet bombed instead of using a precision strike. Overly dressed to impress….I’ll shut up! :)

  8. Stephanie says:

    Even though this novel is flawed, it still sounds like something I’d enjoy. I have a passion for multi-cultural reading, and I do have a high tolerance for graphic sex. I don’t actively seek out the “dirty stuff,” but if it’s part of a good story, I don’t mind it. :-) I’ll look for this at the library. Now Jenny has me interested in Censoring an Iranian Love Story, too. :-)

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, I hope that you manage to get a copy as I’d love to read your thoughts on it. Enjoy!

  9. Mystica says:

    I am upset that I still cant find this book! It is not available in Chennai either. Now I am hoping that I can get it in Singapore at least. Simon first spoke of the book quite some time back and I have been trying to get my hands on a copy from that time on.

    1. Jackie says:

      Mystica, Sorry to hear that you can’t get hold of a copy. :-( I hope that one turns up soon.

  10. S. Krishna says:

    I do like the immigration stories part, but the graphic sex scenes? Those give me pause. There isn’t much written about homosexuals in South Asia, though, so I think I might give it a try.

    1. Jackie says:

      S. Krishna, I’m not a big fan of immigration stories any more – I’ve read so many that they have to be outstanding to interest me now. I’d be interested to read your take on this book though so I hope that you do decide to pick it up.


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