An Atlas of Impossible Longing
Author: Anuradha Roy
Publisher: Free Press (a division of Simon and Schuster)
Genre: Literary Fiction, Postcolonial Lit
Where I got it: From the publisher as part of a Free Press Blog Tour
The title of Anuradha Roy's first novel refers to a comment made by an astrologer while reading a character's palm. The character is Mukunda, who begins the story on the periphery, but ends in the center. At the beginning, the story is focused on Amulya, a middle aged store owner, who is insistent on settling in the small town of Songarh, despite the protests of his wife. Mukunda begins his life in the story as a whisper that a child has been fathered by one of Amulya's sons. Mukunda is that child, and he is orphaned, but supported by Amulya into his childhood.
The story is told in three sections, the first of which is the story of Amulya and Kananbala (his wife). The second is the story of Amulya's son, Nirmal and his makeshift family. Finally, the story is Mukunda's, in the third section. His is the only section narrated in the first person. Only Mukunda tells his own story.
The novel is filled with plots and subplots and points of view, all intertwining and forming, like the lines of Mukunda's palm, an atlas of impossible longing. Desire is the driving force in the novel: desire for love, for escape, for money and success and for all sorts of unfulfilled dreams. At the center of the atlas is the family house in Songarh, crumbling and aging along with the family. In the third section, Mukunda talks about houses:
People are afraid of ghosts in old houses. I know it's the new ones that are haunted, by the crumbling homes they replace. Old houses don't go away. They lurk crumbling and musty, their cobweb-hung rooms still brooding over the angled corners of shining new kitchens and marbled bathrooms, their gardens and stairwells still somewhere there in the elevator shafts.
In the end, Mukunda, whose story the novel really tells, moves from being homeless and caste-less and free, to recognizing the burden of his roots and ties, represented by the aging house. The novel is a typical family saga in many ways, but in others Roy's writing is unique. I really felt a lot of Southern Gothic influence on the book, and the setting is lush and creepy and old and new all at once.
Overall: I think this is a great addition to the genre that I might call the multi-generational family saga. It nicely illuminates the old meeting the new (amongst other collapsing dichotomies), with stories that are both tragic and redemptive.