Anuradha Roy’s new novel, “All the Lives We Never Lived,’’ is replete with the author’s characteristic virtues: an unerring eye for meaningful detail, vividly sensual descriptions of place, the ability to dwell in uncertainty, a luminous empathy for outsiders, misfits, and anyone struggling with limitation, constraint, and oppression.
The novel is narrated by Myshkin Chand Rozario, an Indian horticulturalist in his late 60s who’s looking back on his life from the vantage point of 1992. Never married, childless, misanthropic, Myshkin is dubbed an “old crackpot . . . a grouch, a humorless pain in the arse” by others in his small Indian town, but he floats serenely above the damning epithets. He has cultivated his self-possession and invulnerability to overwhelming emotion as carefully and meticulously as he’s tended his beloved trees and plants.
But now, as Myshkin begins to make “preparations for a tidy ending to [his] . . . life,” he feels it “necessary to write down whatever strikes [him] as significant about the beginning.” And so we are transported to the fictional village of Muntazir (translation: “the one who is waiting impatiently”) where Myshkin grew up the son of mismatched and mutually misunderstanding parents — and where he suffered a loss that shaped his life.
Prone to “fevers and fits,” Myshkin was a sickly child who got his nickname from Dostoevsky’s epileptic Prince Myshkin in “The Idiot.’’ Simultaneously enchanted by and terrified of his charismatic yet often shaming and cruel mother and likewise admiring of and repelled by his high-minded yet self-righteous and rigid father, Myshkin felt a constant sense of dread about his warring parents. Their tensions and standoffs were analogous, Roy suggests, to the political and social conflicts roiling India as that nation fought for independence and the world marched toward war.
His mother, Gayatri, was blessed (cursed?) with a father who “stood at an odd angle to things around him” and saw “a spark inside his daughter that could light up whole cities if tended.” He granted her liberties and opportunities almost no women had, taking her on trips where she met luminaries including Gandhi and Tagore, nurturing her talents as gifts in their own right rather than merely “bait to catch a husband.” Gayatri’s eventual husband, Myshkin’s father, Nek, is a progressive activist professor but also an anti-romantic obsessed with accuracy and moral rectitude, and he comes into perpetual conflict with Gayatri: artistic, reckless, impetuous, a spinner of yarns, and a hatcher of schemes.
Her most daring and devastating plot, which she carries out when Myshkin is only nine years old, is running off with German artist and musician Walter Spies (a real-life historical figure), whom she’d met in childhood and with whom she escapes to Bali to fulfill her dream of becoming a painter. Myshkin never sees her again. From that day on, she is “[p]resent in every detail and yet imprisoned in a different element, unreachable.”
The adult Myshkin is searching for coherence, explanations, and forgiveness. Even as he attempts to insulate himself from strong feeling, shocking aggression emerges as he recounts his story and explores its gaps, misprisions, and distortions. In Proustian fashion, he muses on the elusiveness of the past, the impossibility of certainty, and the deceptions of memory. He is both ineluctably drawn to seek out new sources of information about his family and skittish about the prospect of revising its history:
“Just as our feet new shoes for themselves so that in time they stop hurting, I have d my past for myself. It fits me well enough now, I can live in it. It is a shell into which I can retreat without fear of injury. I do not want to change it for a new version of the past.”
The novel undergoes an important shift when Myshkin reads a cache of letters from his mother to a close friend in India. The letters clarify Gayatri’s suffering for him and for us, and reveal her longing for her abandoned son, but they feel like a narrative misfire. The epistolary form — faithfully reproduced in the text — necessarily leads to laborious repetition: variants of “how is Myshkin?” “I feel guilty, “I needed freedom,” “I am painting,” appear over and over. As the redundancies pile up, the novel’s mystery and magic get crowded out.
Even more problematic are numerous and lengthy excerpts from a novel by the real-life Bengali poet Maitreyi Devi about the life of a woman much like Gayatri (Roy herself translated it). Roy was clearly taken by the striking parallels to her own work, but we don’t need them; they distract rather than sonorously chime.
Despite its structural flaws and its gradual loss of emotional power, “All The Lives We Never Lived’’ is admirable, impressive, intelligent. Throughout, its artist characters’ dedication to beauty and meaning in the face of disaster and suffering — “If the world is in danger, we must still sing and dance and live!” Walter tells the young Myshkin — shimmers alluringly.
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ALL THE LIVES WE NEVER LIVED
By Anuradha Roy
Atria, 288 pp., $26
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’