Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy

Morass of woe…

😦 😦

sleeping on jupiterWhen she was a little girl, Nomi’s house was invaded by soldiers. They brutally killed her father and her mother fled with Nomi, looking for safety. But they became separated and Nomi was eventually taken in by an ashram run by a charismatic guru, where she spent her childhood years. Now, in the present, she is on her way to Jarmuli to make a documentary, and also to seek some answers about her past. On the same train are three elderly women, off on holiday together.

It is an unwritten law that the Booker longlist will always contain at least one book from or about India. Unfortunately that law doesn’t seem to specify that the book should be good. Which is a pity, since some of the best writing in the English language comes out of India, so one wonders why the Booker committee ends up picking ones like this.

This is a trite mish-mash of oh so liberal concerns piled together in yet another of the great tradition of Indian misery novels – the ones that suggest there is nothing good about India and no hope for change. We have child abuse, rape, dementia, the subordination of women and gays, violence – both domestic and war. Oh, and poverty, religious mania, animal cruelty and madness. And a dying dog, naturally.

The following is a genuine quote from the book, not a pastiche of it, I promise. A depressed drunk is swept out to sea on a current…

He would not move his arms. He would not move at all. The sea could have him. Out there somewhere his wife was drinking beer, eating sandwiches, making love with his friend, and that dog was dying.

Or how about Nomi, on a sunlit day, looking out at the sea…

She had seen – she counted – the Sargasso Sea, the Chilean Sea, the North Sea, the Bass Strait, the South China Sea. She’d even dipped a toe in the Baltic Sea – that was icy – and grey like slate. Whole shiploads of children drowned in the Baltic Sea during the Second World War. Think how they died. Frozen.

I am not for one moment suggesting that India doesn’t have deep problems of poverty, inequality and violence, but I am tired of reading books that simply describe these things without offering anything in the way of contrast or hope. It feels like a kind of voyeuristic wallowing, bathos in its purest form; especially in this one, where there’s no feeling of political anger driving it, as there is for example in Mistry’s equally miserable but much better written A Fine Balance. On the upside, this one is much shorter.

Anuradha Roy
Anuradha Roy

For the most part, the writing is average. It starts off quite strongly with the description of the attack on Nomi’s village, and then the introduction of the older women. But within a few chapters it sinks into being a list of one sad or violent or abusive incident after another until it eventually drowns itself in a morass of woe, while the pedestrian prose does nothing to buoy it up. I found the characters became increasingly unconvincing as the book dragged on – as I’ve remarked before about other Indian novels they are merely puppets to be tortured at the whim of the author for the supposed entertainment of the reader. This reader was left feeling unentertained, unenlightened, uninspired and unmoved.

And unbelieving that this book was longlisted when the profound and beautifully written The Way Things Were was not…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus Books.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

49 thoughts on “Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy

  1. Hmm…let me guess, FictionFan…you didn’t much care for this, right? Seriously, I do understand your point about hopelessness. There is a way, I think, to paint an accurate and realistic portrait of a society , however dismal, and not fall into that morass. It’s not easy to do, but it can be done. As you say, it’s a shame this one didn’t have that right touch for you, as there is some stunning writing that comes out of India. I think my TBR remains same…

    • Haha! How did you guess? It’s probably as much because I’m a political animal as anything else, but these kind of helpless woe books really irritate me – it feels like a nice middle-class shoulder shrug. A ‘these things happen and there’s nothing we can do about it’ response. I’m not looking for polemics, but I am looking for some kind of hope or inspiration – some feeling that it’s up to the intellectuals of a country (people who get on the Booker list should be intellectuals, shouldn’t they??) to provide something a bit more nuanced…

  2. I feel a bit like the chap who flung himself into the sea! Although, I admire the wife who can drink beer, eat sandwiches and make love to his friend all at once – she sounds like my kind of woman!

  3. The first line in the third paragraph says volumes: This is a trite mish-mash of oh so liberal concerns piled together in yet another of the great tradition of Indian misery novels – the ones that suggest there is nothing good about India and no hope for change.

    I had deja vu reading that!

    • I fear it gets my back up – it’s such a pointless exercise merely writing about all the possible things that are wrong with a society and trying to shove them all on to a few characters. What purpose does it serve? And there seems to be a never-ending supply of these books at the moment. Call me Pollyanna but I do believe there are some good things about the world – even in India!

  4. I really enjoyed A Fine Balance and Such a Long Journey by Mistry, I may just read them again and will avoid Ms Anuradha Roy completely. Thanks for the heads-up 😉

    • I cannot tell a lie – I hit a similar problem with A Fine Balance, though it’s a much better written and more political book than this one. But I always have issues with books, from any culture, that simply wallow in misery – life is more nuanced than that, even in the poverty stricken areas of the world. Without contrast, I find it becomes numbing…

    • Yep, I won’t be trying to persuade you to add this one to the TBR! It was a shame, because the characterisation started out quite well, but then began to fall apart as she dumped more and more misery on their heads…

  5. I haven’t read this book but from your description I have to wonder what the author was intending by writing it. Thanks for taking the time to read it and to share your thoughts.

    • I often find myself wondering that. I can cope with a book that doesn’t have anything much to say if it’s beautifully written, but if the writing is just average then it has to be saying something new or meaningful. Not this one, sadly.

  6. You are so very kind to try these things out and keep the rest of us safe.

    It does sound as if the author might not eat enough – or even, any, chocolate, and its probably safe to say not a lot of chocolate gets eaten by her characters?

    Cleopatra’s right you deserve a medal, which should at the very least be in beaten gold, even if the medal donors can’t quite run to making it in chocolate (because they eat it as fast as they mould it)

    It’s not the SAME dead dog as the one which gave up its valiant little life in your pastiche, is it?

    This must be a bad one if even I (who has a high misery read tolerance) am not remotely tempted.

    • I’m so glad I only managed to get hold of one of the Booker longlist this year – it looks like a particularly poor year. It’s clearly the way they get selected because there have been some good books this year, but the publishers push the ones they want rather than the best ones. I suspect the reason this is on rather the The Way Things Were is that this is published by Quercus whereas The Way is published by Picador… or am I being too cynical? And it all seems like a pointless effort by the publishers – despite being longlisted, this one has only acquired about 10 reviews in the UK, and one in the US!

      Haha! I must admit my little pastiche has already been out-pastiched by both this and another book I’ve just finished. And I keep finding myself giggling – in the other one, someone really does groan and bury her head in her hands…

  7. Well, sounds like another time-waster, FF. Thanks for wasting yours so I won’t have to waste mine, heehee! Novels that are so unentertaining, unenlightening, uninspiring, and unmoving shouldn’t claim the prize of publication, I’m thinking (especially not ones wherein the dog dies!)

    • I know – I must stop getting sucked in just ‘cos a book gets longlisted. The Booker is no longer a guarantee of quality, if it ever was. The animal cruelty in this one was horrific and unnecessary – definitely wouldn’t recommend it, especially to a doglover!

  8. Wow. Think I’ll skip this one. I have similar reservations about the long list for the National Book Awards here. 😦 I often ask myself, “Why was this book chosen?” And then I get disillusioned all over again.

    • Yes, I think a lot of these prizes allow publishers to put certain books forward for cosideration, and I guess it’s tempting for them to go for the ones that aren’t necessarily the best to try to generate more sales. Nor sure it works though – this one hasn’t exactly leapt up the rankings…

      • I knew it would – I think we are going to get years of books chosen not for quality but to fit into various PC categories and “fairness”

        • Yes, and as I understand it, it’s the publishers who decide which books to put forward, so it’s in their interests to push books that might not get much notice otherwise. Pity!

    • It’s had very mixed reviews over here – not very many of them either, which suggests being longlisted for the Booker doesn’t boost a book as much as you’d expect. I’m afraid when they keep selecting second-rate books then it’s hardly surprising people don’t look on it as much of a recommendation any more. I certainly don’t!

  9. Do you have any Indian novels you enjoy? I find Salman Rushdie to include happiness and hope, and I looked Sharon Mass’s Of Marriageable Age. I’m also going to read Susmita Bhattacharya’s The Normal State Of Mind.

    • I’ve only read one of Rushdie’s – his most recent one Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, which I thoroughly enjoyed but isn’t really about India. I’d like to read more of his stuff. I don’t know the Sharon Mass at all – will look into that one, thanks for the rec!

      Although I’m critical of a lot of Indian misery writing, I do love a lot of stuff that comes out of India too. Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower is a great book that shows all the contrasts this one lacks. I loved Chandrahas Choudhary’s Arzee the Dwarf, and one of this year’s top reads for me has been Aatish Taseer’s The Way Things Were. I think it’s because there are some really great books from/about India that it annoys me so much that the Booker always seems to pick really mediocre ones… 🙂

    • So do I! I don’t want every book to end ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ but when everything is so bleak I just don’t feel it’s an accurate representation of real life…

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