Book Review: An Atlas of Impossible Longing

Cover photo from
Simon & Schuster website.

Despite the fact that it took me the better part of a month to finish, An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy is a beautiful and poetic first novel. It’s the story of three generations of a family in India that explores themes of home, family and love.

Anuradha’s descriptive prose gives the reader a wonderful opportunity to explore the beauty, as well as the cultures, of India. Since the book spans three generations, the reader is also given sort of a “crash course” in the more modern history of the country and its people. For someone with not much background in the rich culture of India, it was extremely interesting to be given this introduction – which spans from the metropolis of Calcutta to the rural Songarh.

The book is separated into three parts. (As with any time I discuss a book, I really don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of giving something away.) The first one, The Drowned House, follows Amulya and Kananbala, a married couple who are new to Songarh and both have to adjust to the difference between this small village and the life they left in Calcutta. They are a slightly older couple by the time they move to Songarh, and Kananbala has a harder time adjusting than her husband. The second part, The Ruined Fort, focuses on Nirmal, the second son of Amulya and Kananbala. He left Songarh after a tragedy, and in this part he returns to his home for an archaeological dig. The Water’s Edge is the third and final section of the book. The interesting thing about these chapters, is that they are narrated by Mukunda, an orphan who was born in the first part and supported financially by Amulya. In the second part, Mukunda had been brought to the home in Songarh by Nirmal to be raised with the family. He is an orphan and his caste is unknown, so in the eyes of some family members, he doesn’t really become a part of the family. Instead, he is a playmate for Nirmal’s daughter, Bakul, as well as a servant. So, in The Water’s Edge, when Mukunda narrates, the reader is given another perspective on this family. But the focus is drawn away from the family started by Amulya and Kananbala, and goes to Mukunda’s life after he is sent away to school in Calcutta when Nirmal determines that the friendship between his daughter and the orphan does not look decent to outsiders (or even other family members).

It’s all really a beautiful story. There isn’t one solid plot-line, but a myriad of things that happen in the three generations. Which is what real life is like anyway. It’s not difficult to follow what is happening at any one point in time, and I definitely got a feel for each of the individual personalities. Even some of the more secondary characters still had well developed personalities. I loved when Mukunda visited an astrologer in the third part and was told, “Want, want, hope, hope…this is what your palm says too, moshai, your palm is nothing but an atlas of impossible longings…Nothing but longing.” (pg. 199). I am one of those giant nerds that loves to find out the meaning behind book titles. And this was so incredibly perfect. These people are constantly longing for things, many of which never come about. Especially Mukunda, who is left always longing for his own history.

One central device, or theme I suppose, that I enjoyed was the concept of house, home and family. The book revolves around this one particular family, but with marriages and the introduction of the orphan Mukunda, there is a constant revision of what it means to be a part of a family and what a house brings to that definition. One particular tradition that caught my attention was that the first born child is born in the mother’s childhood home. Nirmal’s wife, Shanti, leaves him to give birth to their daughter (Bakul). Shanti had been longing for the home of her father, as Nirmal’s older brother’s wife (Manjula) did not treat her very well, and she dreaded having to be stuck taking care of her mother-in-law (Kananbala, who pretty much went crazy). She longed for this home, and was able to return, because of tradition, to give birth to her daughter. Tragedy strikes, but the father’s home plays a major role in the events that follow.

The home in Songarh also plays a major role in the events of the novel. Amulya builds this house for his family in an area that is fairly unpopulated. And his family remains in this massive home for the generations to follow. Mukunda is invited into the home when it is discovered that Amulya had been sending the orphan money for years, and even though he is treated as a boy without caste (which is very important in this society), he eventually comes around to feeling like the house on Dulganj Road is truly his home.

I did appreciate the glossary at the end of the book. Anuradha incorporated many Hindustani terms – both slang and proper – in the speech of the characters and the narration. This helped immerse me into the Hindu background, and I appreciated the cheat sheet. I didn’t notice the glossary until I was about halfway through, so even without the glossary it is possible to figure out at least a rough guess as to what the word means (or, like me, you can just rely on a quick Google search).

It was slightly off-putting when the first thing I saw when opening the book was a list of the characters. I have never understood the need to include a list of characters in a book, often feeling like it’s possible the author doesn’t think her audience is smart enough to keep up with the individuals and how they relate to each other. I decided not to read the list of characters, and did not have a difficult time distinguishing who each person was, and how they related to the rest of the characters.

An Atlas of Impossible Longing was first published in the UK and India in 2008. It debuted in the US this month, and has been named by World Literature Today as one of the 60 most essential books on modern India. The book is the first novel by Anuradha Roy and has been published in thirteen languages across the world. You can learn more about the author and her book on the Simon & Schuster website.

***Disclosure: I received a review of this book from Free Press Books. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own***

This review is also available on Associated Content.

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