When an entire society experiences upheaval and loss on an unprecedented scale, what are the ways this loss shows up in individual relationships, in families, and communities throughout generations? This is the central question driving Anjali Enjeti's luminous debut novel, "The Parted Earth," and it is as complicated as it is revelatory.
Told in sections from 1947, 1996, 2017, from various perspectives, and taking place in India, the United States and Europe, "The Parted Earth" is many things, but it is first and foremost a fictional examination of the price of Partition. In Enjeti's Author's Note, she writes, "After three hundred years of occupation, the British finally quit India. But before leaving, they divided the subcontinent into two nations — the Muslim-majority Pakistan on August 14, 1947, and the Hindu-majority India on August 15, 1947. More than one million people perished in the sectarian violence leading up to and following Partition. Fifteen million became refugees."
This is a history that many of us may have heard in passing, but it becomes something very different when characters must wrestle through it in vivid and moving scenes. In 16-year-old Deepa and Amir's sweet but doomed love story (she is Hindu, he Muslim), we see the unmitigated tragedy of Partition unfold: Affection across religious lines is seen as threatening to the new social order.
After suffering more deep losses from the spiraling violence, Deepa escapes India for Europe, where she settles with her godparents, and raises her and Amir's son, Vijay. But she never tells Vijay anything about his absent father despite his ongoing questions, partly because she doesn't know what happened to him and partly because she cannot bear it. In this way, Vijay becomes obsessed with finding his father and travels back to India to search for him and reconnect with his cultural roots.
Years later, Vijay's 11-year-old daughter Shanti, half-Indian, half-white, keenly feels the absence of her father after her parents divorce, her father leaves, and her white mother raises her in Seattle alone.
Through Enjeti's compelling and deeply believable characterizations, we come to see that Shanti as an adult is as lost a soul as Deepa, although in a completely different way. Her job consumes her but doesn't feed her, her husband lies to her, and she has no real connection to family or culture. Her grandmother, Deepa, seems cold and inaccessible, unwilling or unable to give Shanti any guidance or information about their family or legacy.
Only after Enjeti begins to weave the various pieces of this multigenerational saga together do we see a picture emerge — not of wholeness, but of the aftereffects of loss through time, space and place, and of appreciation for the role that art and storytelling play in our individual and collective redemption.
I have read many books so far this year, but I can say unequivocally that "The Parted Earth" has affected me the deepest. For its emotional honesty and insights, for its elegant craftsmanship, and for braiding all of this through a cultural history most of us know nothing about, this is a novel with the gravitas to transform. Don't miss it.
Shannon Gibney is a writer in the Twin Cities. Her next book is "Botched," which Dutton will publish in fall 2022.
The Parted Earth
By: Anjali Enjeti.
Publisher: Hub City Press, 272 pages, $26.