Title: All the Lives We Never Lived
Author: Anuradha Roy
Publisher: MacLehose Press
Publication Date: June 14, 2018
Genre: Adult Fiction
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Dear fellow Babblers,
All the Lives We Never Lived is a stunning achievement of Anuradha Roy, being his fourth novel. It is a beautiful overlapping history that explores love, secrecy and the definition of family. This book, about halfway through began to remind me of Donna Tartt’s, The Goldfinch in the way that the story of a mother who is really only briefly actually present in either of the books is told by their sons, sick with longing ofr their presence and their maternal love.
“In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.”
So begins the story of Myshkin and his mother Gayatri, who is driven to rebel against tradition and follow her artist’s instinct for freedom.
Freedom of a different kind is in the air across India. The fight against British rule is reaching a critical turn. The Nazis have come to power in Germany. At this point of crisis, two strangers arrive in Gayatri’s town, opening up to her the vision of other possible lives.
What took Myshkin’s mother from India to Dutch-held Bali in the 1930s, ripping a knife through his comfortingly familiar universe? Excavating the roots of the world in which he was abandoned, Myshkin comes to understand the connections between the anguish at home and a war-torn universe overtaken by patriotism.
This enthralling novel tells a tragic story of men and women trapped in a dangerous era uncannily similar to the present. Its scale is matched by its power as a parable for our times.
All the Lives We Never Lived is a beautiful work of literary prose told by the memory of Myshkin, nicknamed after one of Dostoevsky’s characters. Now in his mid sixties this horticulturalist looks back upon his youth and the betrayal he felt when his mother left him for an Englishman. Attempting to understand the reasons for his sudden abandonment, the reader is swooped into a long history of the narrator’s childhood growing up in India. We meet a long chain of family members and friends, all the while being immersed in a war torn country under an strong patriotic influence with the innocent falling under the hand of the powerful. Woven beneath a narrative of sadness and familial conflict is also a tale of suppression of women in a country where voice only has one gender. Set in the 1930’s and early 1940’s the reader is met with the ugliness of the rise of World War II and India’s tumultuous fight for independence. Freedom, one of the main themes in the book, is delved into in multiple respects. Freedom for women from men, freedom from a powerful and corrupt system of oppression, and even freedom, as we see with the narrator, from one’s own backward looking thoughts.
Myschkin’s mother, Gavarti, is a strong willed character. Her voice and desires are not tolerated in her culture where she is expected to marry young, give up on her ambitions and remained housed in a world of acquiescence to men and their desires. Her strong will and refusal to be silenced leads to her, as well as many others’ sufferings in the story. Growing up, she was taken all over the world, alongside her father to discover new peoples, new cultures, new ideas of what “life” meant to people outside of her own country.
It’s sort of reminiscent of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt in that the narrator is a man in his mid-sixties looking back on his life. However, he is not really telling his story but rather the story of the mother that left him when he was 6 or 7 years old. He tells the stories of his mother, a rebellious and tough-spirited woman who’s adventurous soul was to be tamed at the death of her father when she was young and then sent to marry a man 16 years her senior. It is definitely not a flowing and “as it happens” narrative. Instead, each chapter or segment tells the story of one of Myshkin’s (the narrator) family members such as his great grandfather or his mother’s father. About fifty pages in we are introduced to a German by the name of Walter Spies who had known Gayatri (Myshkin’s mother) and her father and had taught them many things about his culture. He comes to India in search of her and, eventually, this is the man Gayatri will leave her family behind for in pursuit of the long lost spirit she had left behind with the death of her father.
It does not become completely clear why Gayatri decides to abandon her family until about 200 pages into the novel. Through letters Gayatari draws a portrait of the intellectual and spiritual freedom that she longs for and only has the opportunity of ever finding if she leave. Her suffering is raw and deep with an ending that left me torn between forgiving her or thinking her selfish for leaving behind a family that still loved her.
The writing style is really dense with description and flowery language so it does take a bit of concentration to absorb so I found myself having to reread a few sentences here and there. With that being said, I did feel absorbed in each of the characters and found the transition from one story to the next beautifully done.
I also think this book is especially a good pick for these later months as the holidays are coming because the family theme and the importance of values is very prevalent. Usually around fall and winter readers are looking for that “cozy” that leaves them warm inside, but still with enough drama to keep them reading, and I think this book (at least so far) does just that!
All the Lives We Never lived is a breathtaking story of a child’s abandonment by his mother and the motives that drew her to leave behind the comfort of stability on a quest for freedom in a war torn country where women are not only expected to be caged but also brought up to be caged willingly. This is one of those books that is sure to linger with me, having left me questioning humanity: what really does it take to cage a person ? Love? Hatred? Both?
(Book image credits go to Goodreads)