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An Atlas of Impossible Longing: A Novel Paperback – April 5, 2011
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Already a sensation around the world: family life meets historical romance in an astonishing novel about two people who find each other when abandoned by everyone else, marking the signal American debut of a writer who richly deserves her international acclaim.
On the outskirts of a small town in Bengal, a family lives in solitude in their vast new house. Here, lives intertwine and unravel. A widower struggles with his love for an unmarried cousin. Bakul, a motherless daughter, runs wild with Mukunda, an orphan of unknown caste adopted by the family. Confined in a room at the top of the house, a matriarch goes slowly mad; her husband searches for its cause as he shapes and reshapes his garden. As Mukunda and Bakul grow, their intense closeness matures into something else, and Mukunda is banished to Calcutta. He prospers in the turbulent years after Partition, but his thoughts stay with his home, with Bakul, with all that he has lostâand he knows that he must return.
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The story starts out in 1907 when Amulya takes his family from Calcutta to Songarh, a small town on the edge of the jungle. He has a wife and two grown sons, along with one daughter-in law. He builds a house in the middle of nowhere. There are no other houses nearby except for one belonging to an English couple across the street. There is dirt, mud, the screech of monkies and not much else. Kananbala, Amulya's wife, gradually loses her sanity from the loneliness and utters irrelevant profanities at the oddest times. Amulya confines Kananbala to her room so as to avoid embarrassment. There she languishes, for the most part alone and lonely. She takes to watching the comings and goings of the English couple across the street and is witness to a murder. Her interpretation of what she sees has a fascinating outcome.
Amulya owns a spice factory where he concocts herbal remedies and perfumes that he sells. The language in Solgarh is Hindi whereas the language in Calcutta, where they came from is Bengali. Gradually, the family becomes fluent in Hindi but it is a struggle. While Amulya is alive, the factory does very well financially and the house he builds for his family is quite grand.
As time progresses, Nirmal, the single son, takes a wife named Shanti. They have a daughter named Bakul but Shanti dies in childbirth and Nirmal is left to raise Bakul on his own. Nirmal is an archeologist and geologist who is also a roamer. He is home very infrequently and sometimes does not see Bakul for years at a time. It just so happens that Amulya is sponsoring Mukunda, a young boy in the local orphanage. He brings Mukunda home to provide a friend for Bakul. Bakul is four and Mukunda six when Mukunda comes to live in Amulya's household. This causes a whole set of difficulties because Mukunda's caste is unknown. He may even be a child from a jungle tribe.
Mukunda and Bakul grow up together and are close in every way. They love to play at Mrs. Barnum's house, the Englishwoman from across the way. She lives under the shadow of suspicion as her husband was killed on her front stoop and she has always been a suspect in the murder. Nevertheless, Mrs. Barnum, who likes to drink a lot, stages monthly birthday parties for herself and the children are always invited. She has a huge library that Mukunda goes through, reading just about every book there.
As Bakul and Mukunda grow older, the family starts to worry about improprieties. What if they were to be too intimate with one another? How do they know the appropriate way to act? They stay out together to all hours and all their time is spent with one another. A decision is made to send Mukunda away to boarding school. The reason given is that it is necessary for him to get a good education. However, he feels betrayed, thrown out just like he was thrown out when he was put into the orphanage. He becomes bitter and resentful, blaming Nirmal for his perceived exile.
The years go by and we learn about Mukunda and Bakul's adulthood. There are many surprises in this book and as the story unfurls there is a lot of tension and build-up towards the finale. Parts of the book have coincidences that seem too much like a deus ex machina. However, it all falls into place beautifully. The novel is in the third person except for the last part of the book which is told in the first person by Mukunda. This part is his story. The writing is lyrical and the story is gripping. Though this is a debut novel, the reader would never know it. Anuradha Roy writes with a polished hand and the result is a reader's delight.
First off, there were few characters that I liked. The first was Meera albeit I didn't like her until she tried to comfort Nirmal over his destroyed books. It helped that she took the time out of her day to piece his work back together. Well, she did start taking care of a dog and her puppies before that. (Having a character be nice to animals is a such a common tool to insist a character's good, so I don't count it too much.) I also agreed with her decision to leave because, she was being mocked. It helped that she considered the aforementioned animals she was raising.
Speaking of Nirmal, I felt bad for him due to the aforementioned incident. I also felt bad for him when Negi called him peculiar for not liking to talk or being around people. (I think what makes it worse is there are actual people whose first thought is something's wrong when they see a quiet person.) Also, I liked how he was honest with himself when it came to adopting Mukunda then sending him away.
The last character was Noori. I felt bad for her when her owners left because, she was quite depressed.
On the other hand, I hated everybody else because, they were just so enraging. (To be fair, I didn't hate Mukunda. In fact, I felt sorry for him at times. I didn't like him that much, though.) Bakul was a notable exception because, she almost never got reprimanded. They would get insulted after a conversation with Kamal then make unfair generalizations about men. Of course, that wasn't just due to the aforementioned man. One of them did that she realized this guy was just being nice because, he was flirting with her. The first worst case was how they mistreated Mukunda for being an orphan. They gave him smaller portions, made him sleep in an outhouse and rat-infested quarters, etc. (You'd think the boy went into the character creator then chose that option.) The second worst case was when Milana released the aforementioned parrot just because, she didn't like her. Never mind that she was still being cared for.
Speaking of annoying characters, Kanalaba ended up becoming a notable example. I felt sorry for her at first because, her laments about the old days were brushed off by her husband. In addition, she was considered mad for having enough and snapping. That was until she mocked Meera for showing interest in a guy. What made it worse is the fact that caused the latter lady to leave and live with relatives. Before I continue, I recommend skipping the next paragraph if you're squeamish.
In addition, there were a couple of irritating minor characters. These two ladies mocked Malina for complaining about a child defecating on the floor. The second one went so far as to say that a child's urine is pure and misses the point harder than the first one. Also, the last time I checked, those were two different things.
On another note, there were several aspects that made the writing style seem a bit amateurish. (I'm aware that this is a first novel. However, there's little to no reason why your first published work should be awful.) The first was how this raised several questions. Since Barnum was supposed to have died from a neck wound, why wasn't that mentioned? The last time I checked, that wasn't an injury you could hide. (Still, the bigger was how towards the end, Mrs. Barnum said that she stabbed her late husband in the gut a few times. That's such a huge inconsistency. It didn't help that the murder was never solved!) Why should Mukunda feel triumphant magnanimity when he hasn't visited Nirmal in 12 years? (I don't think anybody in the right mind would call that being generous.)
Likewise, I noticed that this got redundant a couple of times. The first case when the author called Kamal irritable and dyspeptic. I looked up the second word and found out that it's kind of a synonym for the first word. The second case involved Shanti and her daughter, Bakul. The author said that only Bakul could be saved then said then added that Shanti died in childbirth. I found that pretty unnecessary because, that would've been easy to infer.
In like manner, the author showed us what happened instead of showing us a few times. When I read an adult novel, I want to exercise my mind, not be treated like a child. Also, I've found writing advice from several sources. None of the serious ones recommended that.
Not to mention, this novel sounded silly a few times. Granted, it's a small issue. However, I asked myself ,"This is supposed to be serious?" I made a little exception for gamboling because, that was a peaceful scene.
All that considered, this was one of the worst novels that I've ever read. Not because there was little to like, most of the characters ruined it. In fact, I was going to give this two stars when I first started reading. It didn't help that the writing needed improvement. It was so bad that I didn't touch it for several days until I had to read it for a few bus rides.