Book review: Anjali Joseph’s The Living is an exceptional, unexpected work
Two stories with what seems to be only a tenuous connection go under the microscope in Anjali’s new novel, a work that shows her deep and unusual talent and her propensity for asking questions few others address
by Anjali Joseph
Anjali Joseph has written two previous novels, Saraswati Park and Another Country.
The first is a portrait of the spaces – both petit bourgeois interiors and public – of suburban Bombay. The focus on space and what people do in it means that Joseph’s approach is not that of a chronicler, but of a certain kind of onlooker or bystander. The second novel records the gentle, persistent unravelling of a woman’s life; here, the protagonist becomes a bystander to whom life is happening accidentally, if coincidentally: “I am here, I was here before, then I was there. Before that too, I was there.”
The most striking quality of Joseph’s writing is her concern with narrative: how to shape it by including the apparently superfluous and omitting the conventionally significant; how it is at once a story and a way of encompassing time and space. This might put her in both the lineage of Virginia Woolf and (given Joseph’s interest in the suburban and the provincial) R.K. Narayan. But this lineage goes back also to Rabindranath Tagore, who, in 1895, in an essay on Bengali nursery rhymes, said: “As in the atmosphere, roadside dust, flower-pollen, assorted sounds, fallen leaves, water droplets, the vapours of the earth – all the ejected, whirling fragments of this turning, agitated universe – float and roam meaninglessly, so it is in our minds.”
There are two stories in The Living, the first to do with Claire and her son, who live in Norwich; the second with the 67-year-old Atul and his wife, who live in an unnamed small town in Maharashtra in India. The novel’s chapters are structured as alternating pairs. Nothing overtly connects the stories except that Claire is a shoemaker and Arun makes slippers. It’s up to us to read into the novel the other correspondences, without getting unduly anxious about a neat mirroring. As Claire remarks: “Sometimes the shoes I check don’t fit as well with each other as they would with another left, another right … I rearrange them and find another one where the rosette’s slightly off-centre, or the shape of the vamp mirrors the other one. It’s a small thing. Who’d notice? But it’s satisfying, finding the right partner.”
Claire lives with her son Jason; she has been estranged from his dad for years. Romance flickers in her life again when a man makes overtures to her in a pub, but as with any movement that unfolds in eddies, this episode will peter out and be replaced by others. Two other men enter Claire’s life: Jason’s friend Steve, with whom her time is companionable and sexual; and John, a colleague with whom she has a fitful relationship that she finds difficult to sustain at first, precisely because he is always around. Woven into this narrative is the death of Claire’s father, the funeral, and a meeting with the mother who has always diminished her. Jason seems to be Claire’s most constant point of reference, but they make time to have a long conversation only once, when he asks her about “Dad”. The intention of this wonderful scene is not to progress towards a confession, but to create a way in which the present can converge with personal history, for people to refamiliarise themselves with each other and the past. Such a delicate multiplicity of perspectives can only come from the internal distancing that Joseph so beautifully gives to her characters and from her commitment to a consciousness on the edges of the Cartesian “I”: “In the morning before I knew that it was morning or that I was me … it was the light I felt.”
Halfway across the world, Atul’s craft – fashioning handmade chappals – and possibly his life are drawing to a close. Machines will replace hands; infirmity will slow Atul down inexorably, though he is not yet 70. He has two grown-up sons to whom he isn’t close; and a wife who perhaps knows he once had an affair, to whom he feels so close that existence becomes “a living death” whenever she cuts him off, and who used to sometimes vanish during the day, not to see someone, but, as a sister-in-law reveals laughingly, to sit “under a tree near the river, just staring”. In the final chapter Atul goes to a niece’s wedding in another town, meets up with an old friend, gets drunk, falls ill, is reunited with a cat that went missing, who comes and lies next to him: “I felt the vibrations and his warmth at my abdomen, and relaxed, as though someone else had taken over responsibility for my existence.”
To what extent can we “relax” into that state where we gift the responsibility of our existence to others – a cat, a son, a lover, a wife? Joseph’s novel probes this constantly, though God is never mentioned as one to whom you pass responsibility. Moreover, The Living asks, with a great, moving, unostentatious urgency, and a groundswell that remains with you long after you’ve read it, a question that probably only the novel, as a form, can ask: how do these moments and events add up to “our” life, and what is it in our awareness that leads to this sense of ownership, especially when awareness is extinguished recurrently at night, or with drunkenness or fatigue? How, on waking, do these memories and lacerations once more become our own? Joseph’s is a deep and unusual talent; she attends to questions for which not every novelist is equipped. The Living is an exceptional, unexpected work.