Let me start by saying that I can see exactly why The Lives of Others made this year’s shortlist. It deals with heavy historical material in the shape of Calcutta’s Naxalbari risings in the late 1960s, a theme that also featured on the shortlist last year in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. It also offers an involved investigation of the Indian family system, something that Booker judges have turned to again and again since Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things in 1997.
So no, it isn’t at all surprising to see that Mukherjee’s second novel made the shortlist. But it is surprising to see that it’s currently the favourite to win.
Because, despite being based on one of the most fascinating periods of Indian history, it doesn’t tell much of a story. Attempting to give almost equal weight to seventeen members of the Ghosh family, we actually don’t find out as much as we’d like about any of them. Except maybe Supratik. But, as the family member who joins the Naxalites, his story just doesn’t grab in the way that it should.
Much more interesting are the tales of Somnath, a rebellious and violent teenager, and Priyo and Chhaya, a brother and sister pairing that share a strange encounter in a bathroom that will haunt both of their lives. When these characters are involved, the novel comes to life. But they are involved too rarely to drag The Lives of Others from the doldrums.
Can it win? If you believe the bookies, then yes. It would be a shame, though. It would be a victory based on the novel’s weighty subject and not the way it’s written or the actual story it tells. It’s by no means an awful novel, but it brings nothing new to its genre and leaves too many of its interesting strands unfinished.
You can read more in my Bookmunch review.