Restless spirits disrupt a contemporary marriage in this epic first novel set against the vivid backdrop of India’s shift into modernity.
Tejpal’s fluent, sprawling, ambitious debut intends to span love and sex, colonialism and independence, India’s partition and many more polarities. It opens with a loss of desire: The nameless narrator’s previously infinite lust for sex with Fizz, his partner for 15 years, has evaporated. Six months later, the couple will have separated both from each other and from the fabulous old house they share in the foothills of the Himalayas. At an unhurried pace, the story then backtracks to the start of the relationship, dwelling obsessively on its carnality when not charting, at length, the narrator’s plodding and unsuccessful attempts to write a novel. The panoply of Indian life—historical and contemporary, urban and rural—is presented in richly descriptive detail (particularly the sex), while the subcontinent’s politics is discussed in sweeping statements and metaphors. The story chugs toward its turning point: the death of the narrator’s grandmother, whose legacy pays for the country house, where renovations uncover a sealed box and 64 volumes of a journal. These scribbles form the story of Catherine, an American traveler in pursuit of love and desire during the colonial era who becomes the wife of a gay Indian prince and lover of her servant, or, as the narrator puts it: “Lady Chatterley does the lower Himalayas.” It is the narrator’s obsession with Catherine’s story and his salacious hallucinations about her that brings about the end of his marriage. Two-and-a-half more years are needed to finish the diaries, longer still to solve the mystery of Catherine’s death and restore her daughter’s legacy, but he earns thereby his reunion with Fizz.
Great expectations and a large canvas boil down to vibrant local color, undying attachments and a lot of sex.