At the heart of Anuradha Roy’s latest novel is a single question: Why did Myshkin Chand Rozario’s mother flee her marriage and family when her son was 9 years old?
“All the Lives We Never Lived,” which follows Roy’s 2015 Man Booker-longlisted “Sleeping on Jupiter,” opens with Myshkin, now in his 60s, worrying over his memories.
He’s avoiding opening a parcel that arrives in the mail, “pulsing with the energy every unopened letter in the world has,” because he knows it has something to do with his mom, Gayatri.
When she first left, Myshkin was angry, but as he remembers it, he mostly just wanted her to come back: “If I saw anything I associated with her — an empty vase that always had fresh flowers before, a white sari drying on a line — a giant fist of pain squeezed my chest hard enough to break my ribs.”
Gayatri’s escape from a stifling and unhappy marriage and search for freedom as an artist takes her to Bali, but becomes complicated by World War II and the persecution of her friends.
As “All the Lives We Never Lived” describes a mother’s efforts to create her own unconventional life in a restrictive society, the book’s content and tone reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. It also has a similar success weaving history into the lives of deeply rendered characters.
But despite the presence of real-life historical figures — including Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, German painter Walter Spies and English dancer and critic Beryl de Zoete, Roy’s novel is set in a fictional northern Indian town — a place called Muntazir.
Both of Myshkin’s parents end up leaving this hamlet near the foothills of the Himalayas, but Myshkin, a retired horticulturist, decides to stay. The stories he recounts begin in the 1930s, during his mother’s childhood.
Championed by her father, she learns languages, painting and art and travels with him. When he dies, Gayatri’s world suddenly shrinks.
Myshkin’s dad, Nek, is an interesting and even brave man who works with the anti-colonial Society for Indian Patriots to push for India’s freedom from British rule. He’s also a belittling tyrant of a husband to Gayatri.
When Spies, who in real life spent most of his life in Bali, and de Zoete make a (fictional) visit to Muntazir, her life shifts again.
She decides to escape to Bali with her friends, and (without explaining why) asks Myshkin to rush home from school that afternoon so he can go with her. He gets held late at school and stuck in a dramatic storm: “The rain came like curtains of broken glass.”
Unable to wait, she leaves without him.
The book takes on a different energy when Myshkin finally works up the nerve to read his mother’s letters.
Then, we learn about the events from Gayatri’s point of view as she writes to her best friend, their neighbor Lisa.
Gayatri’s freedom comes at a very steep personal price, but even as her life ends in illness and isolation, Roy’s novel doesn’t condemn her or her choices. This makes for a smart, powerful and ultimately illuminating book.
Erica Pearson is a feature writer for the Star Tribune 612-673-4726.
All the Lives We Never Lived
By: Anuradha Roy.
Publisher: Atria Books, 272 pages, $26.