Viswanathan’s (The Toss of a Lemon, 2008) new novel explores both the personal and global aftermaths of a terrorist attack.
Ashwin is a psychologist who aims to interview the families that lost loved ones in the 1985 Air India bombing; he counts himself among the mourning, having lost his sister and her children. Ashwin’s project leads him to one specific family—especially a man named Venkat, who lost his wife and son in the tragedy. That this family eventually pushes Ashwin, the thoughtful academic, into a place of reckoning for his own loss comes as no surprise. What works remarkably well, however, is the detail with which Viswanathan tells her story. Want an account of how people, moment by moment, process tragedy? Read the long stretch toward the middle of this book when Ashwin tells the story of what Venkat’s family does in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. It’s powerful work, and the book as a whole imbeds the reader in the glacial pace of both grief and justice. That said, this is an easier book to admire than to like. It’s a ponderous story about a ponderous subject, and the occasional moments of humor don’t stave off the suffocating sense of importance. Ashwin proves a difficult narrator—a solitary man who misses not only his own family, but also a former love whose routines he sometimes maintains and who confesses that “most moments when I think of myself are bleak.” At one point, he narrates, “I will tell you now, dear reader, because I want to tell you everything,” but in this intentional slowness, the novel can get bogged down—perhaps a voice done too convincingly?
This is an accomplished novel, but ironically enough, its successes make it sometimes tough to take.