Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow! That was my initial reaction to Neel Mukherjee’s ‘A Life Apart’ and is still the reaction that I am left with a week or two later. In fact this book left such an effect on me and took me on such a journey I had to have a short reading break afterwards and then leave writing about it until I could think on it more. Yes it is one of those books that will leave you feeling a little differently about life, does that sound too grand?
‘A Life Apart’ is a book of two stories and one with many, many themes but don’t let that daunt you before you have read on. The book is in part the story of Ritwik a man who survives a childhood living on the breadline in Kalighat, India. His childhood is not a happy one filled with horrendous abuse from his mother whose funeral opens the book. After his mother’s death Ritwik moves to Oxford in the early nineties to study and find himself. In doing so he finds himself and in doing so starts thinking over the past and finding who he really is as he explores his sexuality and enters a dark underbelly of cottaging (quite graphic), drugs and alcohol leading into the world of illegal immigrants. There is a saviour in all this who is an elderly woman, Anne Cameron, and the relationship between her and Ritwik is one so moving and touching I can’t do it justice in words, it took the book to another level.
Alternating between Ritwik’s tale is also the story of Maud Gilby. Maud is a middle aged woman who moves to the British ruled Bengal of the 1900’s and aims to liberate Indian women at the time and so becomes a teacher of English to rich Indian men’s wives. Initially you think ‘how on earth can these two tales have anything to do with each other?’ Well this is where I felt Mukherjee showed he was even more accomplished as the reader has to do some work to link the two, I shall say no more other than the result is a wonderful one.
It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel as to read it feels so accomplished. Unlike other books that could have made you feel almost too much is going on everything is measured and paced, themes are explored but not overly so. No puddings are overegged by Mr Mukherjee here where some authors might have gone into melodrama or overkill. The prose is both lush and stark in parts and has a wonderful flow to it. The only slight tiny niggle I had was that Maud Gilby’s tale is all in bold which played a bit with my eyes, as I said a small niggle though.
This book has also won India’s prestigious Vodaphone Crossword Book Award under its original title ‘Past Continuous’ and I believe, though I could be wrong, it beat Salman Rushdie. It’s a new award to me and one whose winners I will now definitely be looking to read. This win came as a surprise to some for the way it graphically portrays a hidden homosexual life in the early nineties but Mukherjee didn’t write this book to shock its part of making this particular story ring true, it is also by no means the be all and end all of the novel itself. I think actually the tale of child abuse is the one most people will find the hardest part of the book to read.
Not only, as I mentioned above, is it a book that leaves you feeling a little differently about life, not on a grand scale but in subtle ways and haunts you after you finish the last sentence. I have absolutely everything crossed that this book ends on the Man Booker Longlist as it truly deserves to win so I am hoping its eligible and the publishers put it forward. A must read, a full ten out of ten from me, a book I would whole heartedly recommend to all of you. In fact I am tempted to say that you have to get this book right now and I don’t say too often.