Review: All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy

I liked this book though it didn’t resonate emotionally as much as I expected it to.  It’s a story of man in India who is recalling when his mother abandoned him as a child.  Gayatri was a free-spirited artist who clearly felt constrained by her marriage and societal expectations.  She leaves her family for a German man in 1937, when Myshkin is about nine years old,.

Now in his 60s, Myshkin has spent his life as a horticulturist; he’s passionate about plant life but not much else. He has a strong need to stay in one place, which makes sense given his childhood.

As a child, I would place my back against one of our trees and feel its reassuring solidity, its immobility. It was not going to move, it would never go anywhere, it was rooted to its spot. For as long as they are alive, trees remain where they are. This is one of life’s few certainties.

It was interesting to read a story set in World War II from an Indian perspective, although the war seemed like it was just a backdrop for this story.  I feel like this book tried to do a lot of different things.  It’s a book about political life in India in the 30’s and 40’s, the impact of World War II, and limitations on the roles of women, but mostly it’s about the impact of a child’s abandonment by his mother.

As an adult, Myshkin receives a packet of letters from his mother’s close friend, and through these letters we learn more about Gayatri’s experiences.  However, the story doesn’t connect her storyline and Myshkin’s in a way that felt meaningful.  We learn a little bit as readers about how World War II impacted Southeast Asia, but I wanted to know much more.  Similarly, Roy touches only briefly on the impact of World War II in India — some young men enlist but that’s about it. Her descriptions of the movement for independence in India were interesting — though the character of Mukti Devi, the head of the Society for Indian Patriots, was fictional and I felt that more historical detail could have been provided.

The book is slow-paced and thoughtful, but it meanders quite a bit and takes a lot of time describing Myshkin’s childhood. It becomes more interesting once his mother leaves (we know it’s coming from the first line of the book). There’s one part of the book where Roy incorporates the novel of an author she admires, and I found this distracting because it wasn’t relevant to the story.

Author Roy depicts Myshkin’s mother Gayatri both sympathetically and critically, which I appreciated.  She was raised by a father who encouraged independence and learning, and she hates the repression of her life as a wife and mother in 1930’s India.    Her husband Nek is presumably a typical spouse of his time, but he doesn’t support her passion for painting or her independent spirit, and he resents her friendship with William Spies, a German artist (who is in fact a real person).

I was pretty horrified by how selfish both of Myshkin’s parents were, although on balance I was more sympathetic of his mother, who had to suffer in a freedom-less marriage, than of his father, who clearly cared more about social protest than his son.

This is a far-reaching novel that covers a lot of topics, and is ultimately the story of a boy trying to come to understand the mother that left him.  It’s thoughtful and layered, the sort of book I usually enjoy; although in the end, I was left ambivalent about this one.

Note: I received an advanced review copy of this novel from NetGalley and publisher Atria Books.  The book published November 20, 2018.

3 Responses to “Review: All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy”

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