An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy (thoughts)
Last month, I spent time at the library browsing the fiction stacks for Gothic sounding books. An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy, with its publisher blurb of children running wild, a woman confined to a room going insane, and more, all part of a family confined to a big, isolated house, sounded promising. (As an aside, it’s shocking how difficult it is to find Gothic-esque books; I feel like they’re so popular among readers they should be much more prevalent.) After reading an excellent Indian essay collection (Snakes and Ladders by Gita Mehta), I was glad that I had it checked out and decided to give it a try.
It began promisingly enough, in the turn of the century Raj India, among a middle class man who has dragged his wife from Calcutta to a jungle in the middle-of-nowhere, which happens to be a resource rich area. As the years passed, and the woman went slowly insane from isolation, and became entranced with the British couple across the street, I was still enjoying myself. By the end of the first part, I felt it was definitely a debut novel (a bit jerky with its time passages, a bit thin in characterisations at times, relying on roles instead of people), but one with possibilities and that Roy had set up a story that could become truly entrancing.
Sadly, it didn’t. Even the second part was still good, with a sudden jump to the new generation, although by this point I was waiting for things to get fully fleshed out. But then the third part just unravelled the book: suddenly it switched from general third person to a first-person narrative, following the character that leaves the house for the big city (and thus destroying any potential for an insulated, hothouse environment), and the character’s voice simply failed to convince me. I found myself alternately bored and impatient by such a long diversion, and by the time the author returned to what originally seemed the central plot, I just didn’t care.
I deeply wish Roy had stuck with the style of the first two parts; I’m not sure why she decided to undertake such a dramatic narrative change halfway through. I think switching narrative characters only works if a book is consistently written in first person. Revealing halfway through that what one thought was an omniscient third person narrator is actually one of the characters narrating in third person can also work quite well, but that’s not what happened here. While the book had its strengths, with Roy able to conjure up the atmosphere and little quirky touches needed for a neo-Gothic style, I ultimately found it sadly unsatisfying. This is a debut, though, so I hope her future works live up to the potential I glimpsed in this one.