The Lives of Others is Neel Mukherjee’s unflinching and uncompassionate novel, taking us through the lives of three generations of the upper-middle class Goshes of Calcutta. At over 500 pages, the 2014 Man Booker Prize-shortlisted (and favourite to win) novel was full of false starts, a purposeless narrative, deep explorations of unlikable characters, and little to no momentum. But I finished it.
The majority of the book is spent immersed in the psyches members of the Gosh family, crossing decades and generations as we jump between them. We are given lengthy, scattered insights into their make-up; they are all tedious people with a hint of deliberate ignorance and cruelty. New ideas, secrets and events are introduced; but few are given any further development in the plot, and most are left behind. The idea behind how Mukerhjee has created this story is strong, but the actual execution is indulgent and dull.
However, I kept reading. Mukherjee drops in scenes of brilliant clarity and horror: incest, famine, rape, coprophilia, and corruption by the ruling classes so bad you want to spit on the book in disgust. These moments are so well written, painful to read and provide a real sharpening in the reading experience. But it is not ‘brave’ or ‘brutally honest’ – as if you’re holding up some unflinching mirror to the world – to just insert these issues in. In this case it is lazy: there was not enough momentum in the narrative, so to give a semblance of a plot or the dramatic push behind one, we are hurled arbitrary moments of shock. The story is opened and closed with scenes like this, but after reading such an acute, unshrinking preface, I was left waiting and lost as Mukerjee floated between the lives of the Gosh family members. I was considering quitting the book a quarter of the way through, when another such moment was dropped in and I was hooked back into the story. These scenes are well-crafted, but the overall impression in the story is calculated exploitation: knowing the reader may grow tired of his thoughtless characters, Mukherkee manipulates the reading experience by tossing in one of these moments just to keep us going.
And so the majority of the reader’s time is spent with the Goshes, their tale told through individual first person, each chapter interspersed with a diary-like entry from the black sheep: the one that ran away to incite and fight in the armed peasant uprising against his very class. Amazingly, the possible tension here does very little to the overall plot, we go back and forth between his self-conscious story-telling to the family that he left behind, at different moments in their history. The issue with the Goshes is that for characters that we spend so much time with, and so much time in the minds of, they are immensely unlikeable. However as with other well-crafted bad-guy characters, there is no pleasure in disliking them. There is no revelling in their creation, no wonder at the portrayal; no artistry in their portrayal.
All of this means that as I reached the end of the novel my overwhelming feeling was one of relief at its conclusion. While there was serious quality to the few moments of pure shock and false tension Mukherjee drops in, this was simply not enough to forgive the indulgence in tedious characters and the indiscernible, meandering plot. It was frustrating because there was so much more: more to the author’s skill, and so much more to the themes touched on. While this is a representation of a world and a family with so much to tell, the representation itself was poorly done, so most of the value is lost.