A Review of Neel Mukherjee’s
Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune
on April 18th, 2016
A Life Apart
By Neel Mukherjee
W.W. Norton, 371 pages, $16.95
After the enormous success of Indian-British writer Neel Mukherjee’s epic second novel, The Lives of Others, his American publisher is now bringing out his award-winning debut, A Life Apart, a much less ambitious work, but nonetheless a richer and more rewarding read. While The Loves of Others offers an encyclopedic panorama of Mukherjee’s home city and countryside, A Life Apart focuses on just two intertwining counterpoints: the life of Ritwik Ghosh, a Bengali expatriate trying to make his way in 1990s London, and the imagined life of Miss Maud Gilby, a minor character in Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore’s polemical 1915 novel, The Home and the World. Like Ritwik in London, Miss Gilby is an expatriate in India living “a life apart” among world events that ultimately overwhelm her intricately small experience as an observer and bit player.
Miss Gilby is a British woman hired as a companion and tutor for Bimala, the main character of Tagore’s novel, and in Mukherjee’s version it fairly quickly becomes clear that Ritwik is writing Miss Gilby’s back story as a kind of exploration of his own outsider experience. Like any good symbiotic author/character relationship, the two narratives influence and warp each other as they evolve and encompass more and more of the life around them. Needing a place to stay after finishing his university exams and failing to renew his visa, Ritwik moves in with and begins taking care of Anne Cameron, an elderly woman who he discovers had lived in India as a young woman. Her slowly unfolding history, explored through the personal memorabilia that Ritwik digs up and asks her about, subtly yet dramatically adds texture and substance to Miss Gilby’s evolution as a character and as a part of her estranged society in India. While Tagore dispenses with Miss Gilby in his book’s first chapter, Ritwik’s version sifts entirely through her rich interior reflections, which are of course also complex reflections of Ritwik’s own expatriate experience.
Mukherjee’s second novel likewise features a parallel narrative written by a young male protagonist, and while part of that novel’s drama is in discovering the secondary narrative’s intended audience—a real-life relationship that beautifully bends the reader’s understanding of the novel’s stratified world—Mukherjee’s intertwining of author and creator in A Life Apart is far more dazzling and effective. Not especially gifted at characterization, Mukherjee exceeds far more as a prose stylist who weaves brilliant interiors, and A Life Apart is by far his best writing so far. Ritwik’s own climactic experiences are somewhat haphazard and unconvincing compared to Miss Gilby’s more orchestrated denouement—as well as to the far better plotted The Lives of Others—but this novel’s supple prose absolutely outshines any other consideration to create an unforgettably penetrating work of art.