The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

the lives of otherSometimes life really is too short…


This is the story of a large, extended family all living under one roof in Calcutta, and of one of the children of the family who becomes a Marxist agitator following the Naxalbari uprising. I abandoned it at the halfway point – sometimes life really is too short. A fellow reviewer* described it as “Like The Lowland, but twice as long and half as good”. I think that’s a perfect description – and I found The Lowland pretty underwhelming…

There are about twenty characters in the family and the book jumps about between them in a fairly random fashion. The timeline also varies and it’s often not made clear what period we’re in, though the main storyline seems to be the one set in the ’60s. Combine this confusion with the fact that the author (probably realistically) uses three or more different variations of name for each character and frankly the book becomes extremely hard to follow. There is a family tree at the beginning, but I really expect authors to be skilled enough to keep me informed without me constantly having to break off to go consult charts, or look up the glossary of endless Indian words that are included in a book which is supposedly written in English (by an Indian born/English resident author).

But I would have been willing to make the effort to plough through the book if the story were interesting, the writing beautiful or the characters enjoyable to spend time with. Unfortunately that’s not the case. The story is simply an observation of this unpleasant family that goes on and on in endless detail but never actually heads anywhere. The exception to this is the strand about the budding terrorist. Cut in at the end of chapters, this strand is told as a series of extracts from letters he sends to an unnamed person, possibly a lover – at the point I abandoned it we still don’t know. Here we learn all about the lives of the rural poor, but from a distance – we never actually get to know any of the poor, just this angst-ridden middle-class Marxist’s interpretation of them, liberally sprinkled with a regurgitation of Marxist theory – at great length.

Calcutta 1967
Calcutta street scene 1967

The quality of the writing is fine – neither particularly bad nor good. Occasional passages are well written and there’s no doubt he gives a very, very, very detailed picture of everything he describes (including lots and lots of abstruse mathematical theories – well, he obviously knew them, so why not put them in?). I quipped that Donna Tartt had obviously bought a couple of enormous economy sized bags of words and used them all in her writing of The Goldfinch – Mukherjee has obviously been to the same shop. I saw him being interviewed about the book on the BBC News channel and when asked about the length of the book he replied that he wanted the book to be ‘densely rendered’ (Good news! It is!) and that if people were paying £17 for the hardback he felt they should get their money’s worth. Personally, I’d prefer to pay for quality rather than quantity. He also said that he thought even Indian people would find it hard to really understand the ‘Bengali-ness’ that he is apparently trying to portray – I guess therefore it’s understandable that this Scot struggled to feel engaged.

Neel Mukherjee
Neel Mukherjee

The real flaw in the book though is that, out of this huge cast of characters, there isn’t a single one who is likeable, engaging or even particularly interesting. The family on the whole dislike each other and that I did find understandable, since I disliked them all. We have bullying of children, animal cruelty, incest (or as good as), and sexual perversion of the most ridiculous kind about which it has been my misfortune to read. We have some members of the family being treated as second-class citizens within the home, sibling rivalry taken to extremes, obnoxious wives battling for domestic supremacy, servants being treated as badly as servants usually are, and beggars being turned away at the door to starve. Two weeks in this family and I’d have become a Marxist terrorist myself.

I said it when I was reviewing Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and I’ll say it again – I do not believe that India is this unrelievedly awful. The problem with unmitigated misery is that it becomes numbing after a while – there has to be something to contrast it with if it’s going to have an emotional impact.** Or alternatively it has to be written so beautifully that the words themselves become the point. All of these people are so deeply unpleasant that this reader couldn’t care less what happened to them. In fact, I was rather hoping for an alien invasion to brighten things up.

In truth, this probably deserves about three stars for the writing and descriptions but, since I found it such a dismal, tedious and ultimately pointless read that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, I feel I have no option but to put it in the 1-star slot. It’s been shortlisted for the Booker, of course…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

* Amazon UK reviewer “Mister Hobgoblin”

** As an aside, I find it intriguing that the three authors I have criticised as portraying such a bleak mono-coloured view of India are all people who have left it to live elsewhere (Rohinton Mistry, Neel Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri). On the other hand the two Indian authors whom I have hugely enjoyed (Aravind Adiga and Chandrahas Choudhury) both live and work there, as far as I know, and give a much more balanced and nuanced picture of the people and of life there. I rather wish someone would do a thesis on differing viewpoints of emigrants and residents…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

49 thoughts on “The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

    • You may have done, indeed! They seem to feel the need to have an obligatory Indian book each year, regardless of quality, to pretend they still care about the Commonwealth… 😉

      • I read a lot of criticism this year about how few Commonwealth books made the Booker long list (those insidious Americans…) yet never did I see a suggestion of a specific novel that had been hard done by with the new competition.
        I persevered with We are All Completely Beside Ourselves and am now all-in on a Flanagan win.
        Thanks for saving me some time too. If it makes The Lowland look enjoyable…
        I like your idea about expat vs local writers too. I hadn’t thought of it before but it seems an accurate comment.
        Keep the honest yet fair reviews coming!

  1. What an exquisitely crafted rip.

    It’s a delight to smile at my Kindle TBR, safe from increase at your hands by another day. Means I can re-read The Goldfinch again at a slightly earlier time than if I had an even larger TBR!

    I don’t know why, but for some reason your quotes from the author, and your sharing of the experience of the book, and also, yes, I must say the author photograph reminds me HUGELY of an experience I know I shared, of a world premiere of a particular concert of avant-garde, electronically created and sampled music. Some of which was interesting, one of which was rather wonderful – but one piece (and the composer was present) consisted of unremitting discordance and thump for I think 20 minutes. It was so bad I thought I was going to throw up, and had a splitting headache (and i don’t get headaches) The only way through it was to begin the excruciating, pompous and deliberate ‘avant garde incomprehensibility’ funny, and I went from clutching my head and stomach in great pain to shaking uncontrollably with suppressed hysteria, as did my friend. And when the composer came up on the stage, looking utterly pleased with himself, we fled the auditorium, barely able to repress our howls of hilarity

    • Thank you! And I think your Kindle should remain safe…even though I think you would like this considerably more than I did. Misery is more your thing! 😉

      Haha! Reminds me (and I’m sure I’ve told you this before) of the four mismatched cygnets in one version of Swan Lake. All different shapes and sizes and completely out of step – sadly I got the picture in my head of the Two Ronnies doing a skit and nearly choked in an attempt not to snort out loud…

    • Yes, I spotted Flanery’s review…and a rave from AS Byatt too (more of a recommendation to you, than to me!). I’m sure this book must appeal to some people – in fact, it clearly does – but I’m afraid I pay very little attention to author reviews of authors these days. Too much back-scratching. Byatt is under the same publisher as Mukherjee – was she ever likely to say anything negative? Was she really the most unbiased person the Guardian could find to do a review? And for all I know, Flanery and he go to the cricket together each week…they both live in London and as part of the literati presumably move in the same circles.

        • Yes, I don’t understand how they decide which books to push. It feels almost random at times. But then, as we so often say, one man’s chocolate cupcake is another woman’s custard pie…

  2. I never was particularly interested in The Lowland as I think Lahiri seems to rehash her old themes again and again. It’s ok in short stories but not so in full-length fiction.

    I do want to read this one though, in spite of the negative review.

    • Lots of people are enjoying it, Nish, and I’ve noticed from reviews that Indian people seem to be enjoying it a good deal more than Brits. It might have something to do with the fact that Indians understand the naming conventions for characters and the liberal use of Indian words to describe things, whereas many of us outsiders just find that confusing and off-putting.

  3. Oh its sad you didn’t like it because I enjoyed it quite a lot. True it is dark at points but a lot of it is unfortunately true – the treatment of widows for instance. At some points the details are overbearing (especially the perversions,etc) but towards the end the story is quite powerful.
    Also, I quite liked Supratik’s character, or rather, the way it was crafted. I’ll assure you that its real too – in recent times, a lot of Naxal leaders have been surrendering after many years of strife and violence.
    But the immigrant angle you suggest is very interesting – I hadn’t thought of it before. I’ll look into it more !

    • I must say I don’t doubt the truth of it – I just think it’s a partial, biased truth. I know there is huge poverty in India and great inequality, but I don’t believe that everyone who lives there is deeply unpleasant. No-one laughs or smiles or reaches out a hand in kindness – they’re all cruel, nasty, vicious, small-minded – except the terrorist – strange message. So I don’t care if they suffer. I always compare these books to Dickens, who drew so much attention to the poverty and division in his society, but also showed scenes of joy, people with kind hearts, humour…hope. And did not feel the need to fill his book with descriptions of urination and weird and disgusting sexual practices…

      Haha! I’m still feeling bitter, as you can see! Glad you enjoyed it better than me – I suspect the fact that you probably didn’t suffer the same confusion around the names of the characters, and didn’t need to keep looking up the glossary to know what he was going on about, might have made it a better read. 🙂

      • I see your point and agree with it too. Especially the last part could have been avoided. My main reason for liking it was that towards the end Supratik confronts a lot of conflicts with his ideology and I thought that was handled well.

        It did make it an easier read ! In fact, I am going to write a post on it soon 😉 I get a lot of ideas from your posts 🙂

        • Yes Supratik’s storyline was far more interesting than the rest – I wish he’d concentrated more on that and cut the whole family stuff by about 90%!

          Thank you! That makes me feel very honoured! I’ll look forward to reading your post… 😀

  4. Ah! I have a copy of this on my e-reader sent by the publisher and now I’m wondering if I should even start it. Mind you, I think ‘A Fine Balance’ is one of the greatest books ever written so it’s just possible that you and I might differ over this one as well.

    • There are definite similarities, I think, though this one concentrates more on the declining middle-class rather than the poor directly. It might be a bit unfair of me to judge given that I abandoned both, but I think the Mistry is by far the better written, and structured, of the two. However, plenty of people are praising this one, so you might enjoy it…

  5. And now that I’m thinking about it, Carolyn Chute was criticized for her work, The Beans of Egypt, Maine. The novel presented a depressing view of one family, overwhelmed by poverty and living in a very small town in Maine in the US. Some reviewers said she didn’t give the people of Maine fair treatment, that the vast majority of Maine’s residents are not poorly educated and living in abject poverty. But I’m thinking now, that the slice of life she presented is evident throughout Maine, interspersed with those who vacation there in the summer months and other residents who are well educated and earn a decent living—like Stephen King.

    Is it an author’s responsibility to present an evenhanded view of a place or a people? Probably not. But is it an author’s responsibility to give you at least one character that you want to hold on to like a lifeline as you’re being pulled through the morass of unsavory experiences? I’m thinking, yes. That character doesn’t have to be likable, but you want to be invested in how things will turn out for them. Here, it seems, the author forgot the lifeline and left the reader alone to sink or swim. Shortlisted for the Booker, you say? Hmmmm……of course. “Serious literature” must leave the reader feeling battered and permanently defiled.

    • I don’t think an author really has a responsibility to include all aspects of a society, but I think they have to somehow show that there are others aspects than the one they’re concentrating on. That’s not very well explained, but my problem with both this and the Mistry is that they give the impression very much that, this is it – India! Place of grinding poverty, cruel oppression, man’s inhumanity to man and hopeless despair. The end. No more believable than if they concentrated exclusively on Bollywood stars, or cricket players.

      And the very odd thing about this one was that the only character who showed any caring side at all was the terrorist, who was awfully sweet, if a bit dull, when he wasn’t butchering people horrifically and urging others to do the same… I’m not sure what message Mukherjee was trying to get across really.

      I know it’s terribly old fashioned of me but I rather tend to read for entertainment and so I need a bit of something cheery to break up the misery from time to time… (I know – I’m a weak, bad person)

  6. Thanks for the advice! This was vaguely TBR because it made the Booker short-list. Glad to know your thoughts on it. Though if this wins the Booker, I’ll probably have to read it anyway….

    • Yes, I was only tempted to read it because it was shortlisted. I haven’t read any of the other shortlisted books this year, but oh, I sincerely hope something else – something a bit less miserable – wins… 😉

  7. Love your candid reviews, FF, and your refusal to like something merely because it’s shortlisted for a major prize! Like a few of your fans, I loved A Fine Balance. But I agree with your general premise that unrelenting darkness does not usually a great read make. My experience of people living in conflict zones, for example, is that they use gallows humour to stay sane. Likewise, people living in poverty really know how to have a good time when the opportunity – however rare – presents itself. As a writer, I aim to capture some of that light but it’s a fine balance (pun intended!) to avoid romaticisation.

    An author whom I think does the balance well despite the dark themes of her books is Kishwar Desai, who interestingly, divides her time between the UK and India.

    • Thanks, Angela! I must admit the shortlisting probably raises expectations and makes me judge the book to a higher standard than I maybe would otherwise. It also means the book is guaranteed loads of positive reviews, so I don’t feel concerned that my review will adversely affect sales (which I would if I was reviewing a book by a debut, unknown author).

      Yes, I think there has to be a bit of joy, or hope or humour, in a book otherwise I always end up feeling what’s the point? Of life??? But I must say this book has made me think slightly more highly of A Fine Balance… 😉 But seriously, I agree – generally people find some humour in all but the very bleakest of situations and I think it’s as unrealistic to portray every character as nasty as it is to make them all sickeningly sweet. I’ve only read one of Kishwar Desai’s books – Witness the Night – and she definitely achieved a better balance, I thought, without having to pull her punches.

  8. What a brilliantly written negative review! I can’t believe he gave the reason for making it so long was so that his readers got their monies worth. I thought, as a writer, the point of length was to do with it being how long it took to tell that precise story.

    And yes, not only is life too short, but the TBR pile too big to continue reading books we don’t enjoy.

    • Thank you, Rebecca! And I couldn’t agree more. I don’t dislike long books just because they’re long – I couldn’t be a Dickens fan if that was the case, and I love The Luminaries – but the length must be right for the story, not just be full of padding. 🙂

      I hate abandoning books, but sometimes there’s just no point in struggling on…

  9. India really isn’t this ‘unrelievedly awful’! We have a ways to go, but we’re not beyond all hope. I really fail to understand why so many of these literary prize-winning authors like to not just shed light on a problem – or problems – but to absolutely wallow in them. It really seems rather sadistic to me, the pleasure they seem to derive from finding numerous ways to torture their characters. And there are times when the author so meticulously destroys any hope for improvement that you wonder what, if any, was the point they were trying to make.

    • I couldn’t agree more – the wallowing in misery trend seems to have taken over a large part of literary fiction at the moment. I always tend to compare them to Dickens, who showed the poverty and inequality in his society, but also provided humour and, most importantly, a bit of hope! And I hate when characters only exist to have horrible things happen to them. It’s so unrealistic when it’s taken to extremes that it actually reduces the impact rather than increasing it, I find. I’m certain the trend in Indian misery writing comes mostly from people who’ve left the country though. Writers who live there seem to give a much more balanced and nuanced picture…

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