cover image A Life Apart

A Life Apart

Neel Mukherjee. Norton, $16.95 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-0-393-35210-8

Following his mother’s death, and soon after his father’s, protagonist Ritwik is surprised to find himself entirely alone in his Calcutta neighborhood at age 21, not nearly as happy as he’d hoped he’d be with his mother gone (she was both the “proudest” mother in the area and, seemingly, the most abusive, “always on the edge of fury,” if not in its throes). His loneliness follows him to rainy rural England, where a scholarship gets him two years in university, and then on to London, where he stays without working papers. Ritwik is unable to shake the trauma of his mother’s cruelty, punishing himself once she no longer can. Throughout this time, which is set in the early days of AIDS, Ritwik finds men with whom he can have brief, furtive encounters in bathroom stalls and on unlit backstreets, never learning their names, never allowing himself affection or trust. And yet he’s not without hope. Interspersed throughout the book are installments of Ritwik’s own forays into fiction, imagining one Miss Maud Gilby: a minor character from a Tagore novel and an intrepid, early 20th-century British woman intent on educating Indian women. Calcutta native Mukherjee (The Lives of Others) illuminates the crevices of shame and despair with his beautiful prose. (Mar.)