Saturday, 7 April 2018

Review: 'A State of Freedom' by Neel Mukherjee

I read Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others back in 2014, and when I saw his name pop up on Netgalley I remembered how much I had enjoyed his writing style as well as his sharp observations of human behavior. But still I wasn't prepared for the beauty and heartbreak that awaited me in A State of Freedom. Thanks to Chatto & Windus and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 06/06/2017
Publisher: Random House UK, Vintage; Chatto & Windus

What happens when we attempt to exchange the life we are given for something better? Can we transform the possibilities we are born into? 
A State of Freedom prises open the central, defining events of our century – displacement and migration – but not as you imagine them. Five characters, in very different circumstances, from a domestic cook in Mumbai, to a vagrant and his dancing bear, and a girl who escapes terror in her home village for a new life in the city, find out the meanings of dislocation, and the desire for more. 
Set in contemporary India and moving between the reality of this world and the shadow of another, this novel of multiple narratives – formally daring, fierce but full of pity – delivers a devastating and haunting exploration of the unquenchable human urge to strive for a different life.
At first glance the five stories in A State of Freedom seem to have been put together at random, sharing nothing except all being placed in India. However, as one works his way through each story, comes to care for or puzzle at each character, one starts to see how all of their stories are interlinked, how  one's actions affect the other, how each character's struggle is in a way representative of the other's struggle as well. The novel is prefaced by a quote from a Syrian refugee at the border of Austria, August 2015:
'Migrants? We are not migrants! We are ghosts, what's what we are, ghosts.'
Throughout the stories in A State of Freedom Mukherjee explores the stories of people who seem like ghosts, who live on the periphery, who can look in but not partake, or who are desperately struggling for a freedom they can't quite explain. If you could ask these characters what it is they want, I dont know if they'd be able to tell you. But they burn with a desire to live fully, to be completely, to take up space and be recognised. Not all characters in A State of Freedom are pleasant, but in each you can't help but recognise that spark of desire for freedom. And it is what makes these characters so recognisable and heartbreaking in the end.

Mukherjee tells five different stories in A State of Freedom, each strangely linked to the others and yet wholly independent. In the first story a father takes his son on a trip back to India from America, only to feel continuously haunted by his own weakening connection to his homeland and his son's seeming non-interest. In the second story a young man visits his parents in India while working on a cook book and gets to know the family's cook, a woman who works quietly and hard, with a whole story just waiting to be told. Class, pride, generational differences, it all comes to the surface in this story. The third story is perhaps the most difficult in A State of Freedom, in that its protagonist is not exactly likeable and yet you can't despise him. He finds a bear cub and hopes that by viciously training it he will be able to win both an emotional as well as financial freedom. In the fourth story we follow a woman from childhood to adulthood as she is moved around to work as a maid here or there, stripped of independence until she manages to claw as much of it back as she can. Interspersed with her story is that of her childhood friend who joined a Communist militant group in the hopes to change something, do something. The fifth and last story is perhaps the most heartbreaking, told without punctuation in a rambling stream of consciousness style. In this final story the follow a man who moved to the city to earn money for his family as his mind wanders, lost. This story is close to painful to read in its hopelessness and tragedy.

I have tried to describe the stories in A State of Freedom above as clearly yet non-spoilery as is possible, yet I don't know if I'll be able to find the words to explain just how heartbreaking some of them are. Mukherjee doesn't spare his readers and forces them to look upon his characters, his country, as clearly as he does. With unflinching but beautiful prose, Mukherjee describes the wonder of India's nature, the sumptuousness of its food, the harshness of its poverty, the brutality of its division between rich and poor, the pride and resilience of its people. In a way A State of Freedom is an ode to freedom, an encouraging cry to all of us who struggle day by day to reach some kind of state of freedom. And yet it is also a harsh reminder of just how far many of us are removed from finding that freedom, from being free in any sense of the word, from worry, financial burden, shame, oppression. A State of Freedom isn't a fun read, but it is one that will leave a beautiful ache once it's finished.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

There were times this collection made me want to cry, but there were also times when it filled me with hope. Mukherjee's five stories are horribly beautiful and stunningly sad, and I wholeheartedly recommend you read them. A State of Freedom will stick with me for a very long time.

Review: 'The Immortalists' by Chloe Benjamin

I think I recently came to accept that, one way or another, all books are about humanity's struggle with  both life and death. How do we live happily? How do we die peacefully? Why do we live? Why do we die? I appreciate that this is hardly groundbreaking, but I'm still fascinated by the many different stories we are capable of writing as a species in the search for answers, or at least a path that might lead to an answer. The search spreads across genres, centuries and cultures, and I love it. The Immortalists was the latest read I picked up that was searching, and I adored it. Thanks to Headline and  Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 08/03/2018
Publisher: Headline; Tinder Press

It's 1969, and holed up in a grimy tenement building in New York's Lower East Side is a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die. The four Gold children, too young for what they're about to hear, sneak out to learn their fortunes. 
Such prophecies could be dismissed as trickery and nonsense, yet the Golds bury theirs deep. Over the years that follow they attempt to ignore, embrace, cheat and defy the 'knowledge' given to them that day - but it will shape the course of their lives forever.

What would you do if you knew the exact day you were going to die? This question has been asked by many a teenager during a half casual. half philosophical conversation with friends, and is usually followed by the equally deep 'If you had to choose between fighting a horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses, what would it be?'. But just because it's something everyone has thought about at least once doesn't mean that it isn't worth revisiting. The question of death is also, in many ways, a question about life. If you knew you had 20 years left, how would you spend them? Suddenly you're thinking about family, love, work, happiness, loss, everything that makes a life feel lived. There is no one template for a happy and fulfilled life, but the same is true for an unhappy life. Many novels have explored both the happy and unhappy among us, judged characters for their sins and praised them for their virtues, cried over their misfortunes and rejoiced with them in their victories. Since neither novelists or readers can stop pondering over what makes life and what makes death, we continue to receive novel upon novel exploring, or trying to, the full human experience. The reason I love reading these kinds of books is because in every character I read about I find something reflected that I recognise, about myself, about a friend, a family member. These kinds of novels, at least for me, enrich me experience of life.


In The Immortalists Chloe Benjamin takes an interesting approach to telling the stories of the four Gold children. Initially, in the beginning of the book during their childhood, the novel switches between their narratives, but once adulthood, or rather teenagehood for some, kicks in, Benjamin neatly divides her book into four sections, all narrated by a different sibling, one story following the other. At first I wanted more back and forth, see how the different sibling were coping at the same time with the same events, but there is something ingenious about this split because it echoes the separation of the Gold siblings as they grow up. Not only are most of them physically removed from each other, there is also a mental block between them that means each of them lives their life at a slight remove from the others. It's heartbreaking, but it also allows the reader to really focus on one sibling at a time. The Gold siblings go down very different routes in their lives and so every narrative is filled with both joy and crushing sadness. Benjamin addresses animal testing, HIV, alcoholism, mental health and so much more in The Immortalists but it never feels exploitative. Rather these are things her characters have to deal with, have to confront in one way or another. Throughout the novel there is one thing that stays standing, for better or for worse, a constant presence in all her characters' lives and that is family.

It took me a while to get into The Immortalists. I didn't know what to expect. Would this book gives us something supernatural, would Benjamin infuse the lives of the Golds with Magical Realism? The answer to both of those questions is no. And yet I found myself consistently fascinated by the different roads Benjamin travelled in her novel.Throughout The Immortalists Benjamin sticks largely to the real, the tangible, the felt realities of life. Yet especially in the chapters dedicated to Klara, she allows the magic of faith and belief to shine through. There are some stunning moments in this novel of pure sadness and love that feel magical in their own way. The Immortalists isn't a happy book per se, but each of her characters' lives is described with such gentle honesty by Benjamin that you can't help but get sucked in. Benjamin doesn't shy away from revealing the darker side of her characters, and this can definitely take some readers by surprise, but by following them down the rabbit hole she can also show us the moments of joy and beauty that occur in every life. Despite all its tragedy, The Immortalists is also a love letter for its own kind to the beauty of a human life.

I give this novel...


4 Universes!

I took my time with The Immortalists but every time I put it down I found myself thinking about it, curious where it would go, what would happen if I kept reading. And so I kept returning to Benjamin's characters. It's a thoughtful book, one that will make you both sad and quietly joyous at the same time. I'd definitely recommend this to fans of Literary and even Philosophical Fiction.