Looking back, less in anger, more in sorrow infused with gradual understanding, an Indian horticulturist recalls his abandonment by his mother as India’s fight for independence merged into World War II.
On the world stage, an immense nation struggles to liberate itself from a repressive colonial history; in an Indian town called Muntazir, a gifted young woman brought up by her father to love and explore the arts is also yearning for freedom, from the domineering behavior of an educated but controlling husband. Gayatri Rozario is the young, stifled wife, and it’s her son, Myshkin Chand Rozario, who narrates the events of 1937, the year in which his free-spirited mother abandoned the family home for a life of creativity, encouraged by a visiting German painter, Walter Spies. Myshkin, now in his mid-60s, has never left that family home, having opted for a life of service: Muntazir’s trees, shade, and flowers are the products of his job as Superintendent of Horticulture. But this isolated man’s perspective is a wounded one, and his account of unhappiness—his own, his mother’s, and his stepmother’s—is melancholy, lit with occasional bright glimpses of gardens, colorful saris, and musical evenings. Roy (Sleeping on Jupiter, 2016, etc.) is a lyrical, subtle, finely observant writer, yet there’s a spark missing in this story, hitched as it is to the real-life figure of Spies, whose residence in Bali introduces other historical figures, then gives way to glimpses of ill treatment of prisoners as war engulfs the island. Myshkin gains late insight into his mother's actions from a cache of letters to a friend, which Roy interrupts with actual extracts from a novel Myshkin is reading, by Bengali author Maitreyi Devi, depicting a story similar to Gayatri’s. This synthesis of fact and artifice doesn’t wholly meld, but the book achieves late peace as Myshkin departs on a journey of his own.
A novel of history, both global and personal, gracefully wrought but self-consciously constructed.