Forethoughts: A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee

A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee  (Constable and Robinson) *Note: My afterthoughts for this novel have now been posted*

With the read through of my last novel done ‘n’ dusted I thought I’d keep the cultural ball rolling with a ‘kick around’ of A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee. Recently published by Constable & Robinson, I’ve been looking forward to reading this debut novel ever since I first laid my bookish eyes upon it (and snapped it for a recent Daily Bookshot). It’s got a storyline that spans two continents – India and Europe – and so the prospect of another culturally rich reading journey, has got me perched on the edge of my reading chair. Let’s have a wander through my forethoughts for it.

First up, the ‘red rag to a bull’ mention that A Life Apart is a debut novel. If you know my reading preferences then you would also know that I’m drawn to debut novels like a moth to a naked light bulb. The opportunity of discovering a new, vibrant, exciting writer is always at the back of mind when I stumble across a novel inscribed *debut* (and let’s face it I’ve discovered a few who’ve moved me recently), and with this one, once I’d determined that the story appealed, my attraction to it was no different – I was instantly hooked.

Neel Mukherjee Well I say my attraction to this debut novel was no different, but there was one thing. When I first became aware of A Life Apart it bugged me, because its author’s name just seemed so familar to me. As many of you will already know it’s kind of unusual to recognise the author of a debut novel straight away (unless he/she has fame outside of fiction-writing arena of course), but the name Neel Mukherjee just kept on ringing bells in my head. One Google search later, and a pop along to Mukherjee’s personal website, and the mystery instantly became clear – Neel Mukherjee is an established book reviewer. Of course he is, and I remember reading his glowing review of Aleksander Hemon’s Love and Obstacles on the Time Online website, and his even earlier review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, at the same portal. What struck me about both of these reviews wasn’t just the passion and respect that Mukherjee showed for both of these writers and their books, but also the poetic eloquence that Mukherjee showed in his own review writing. I remember then making a mental note to keep an eye out for future novels from this book reviewer, and here I am on the threshold of reading his first.

Of course no matter how strong the promise of a good storyteller, the reader can only be engaged if the story being told can live up to that same promise. Thankfully, through the cover blurb for A Life Apart, that promise definitely appears to be there:

Ritwik Ghosh, twenty-two and recently orphaned, finds the chance to start a new life when he arrives in England from Calcutta. But to do so, he must not only relive his entire past but also try and understand it. Moreover, he must make sense of his relationship with his mother – scarred, abusive and all-consuming.

But Oxford holds little of the salvation Ritwik is looking for. Instead he moves to London, where he drops out of official existence into a shadowy hinterland of illegal immigrants. However, the story that Ritwik writes to stave off his utter and complete loneliness – a Miss Gilby who teaches English, music and Western manners to the wife of educated zamindar – begins to find ghostly echoes in his life with his aged landlady, Anne Cameron.

And then, one night, in the badlands of King’s Cross, Ritwik runs into Zafar bin Hashm, suave, impossibly rich, unfathomable, possible arms dealer. What does the drive to redemption hold for lost Ritwik?

A story spanning two continents? A man on his own and no doubt out of sorts with unfamiliar surroundings? Wrestlings with past, torn relationships? All this, and the prospect of an arms dealer too? How can I resist reading a novel like this? Answer: I can’t! And if I did need further convincing that this novel is worth reading, then when it was published in it’s original Indian incantation (known then as Past Continuous), it was the joint winner in 2008 of India’s prestigious literary prize, the Vodafone-Crossword Award. Nuff said! 🙂

So I’m well and truly sold, and my journey through Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart begins. It’s a big read at 300+ pages so it’s going to take me a little while to get through it. But I’ll be back just as soon as I have with my afterthoughts, and in the meantime you can follow my progress and musings on this novel via my reading journal.

Constable & Robinson | 28 January 2010 | £12.99 | PAPERBACK | 352 PP | ISBN: 9781849011013

So book fans I’d love to be enlightened. Have you ever read any of Neel Mukherjee’s writings? Is this a novel you‘ve read yourself, particularly in the vernacular? What are your own favourites from the canon of Indian literature? Drop your comments below.

A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.

Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).


  1. My favourites from the canon of Indian Lit.? I guess that could be a whole post Rob, but I really do enjoy Thrity Umrigar, Amitav Ghosh, Manil Suri, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Rau Badami (based in Canada)and Kiran Desai…just to name a few. I do look forward to seeing you explore literature from different parts of the world, thank you!

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      Good grief I hope you will forgive me Angelique, because I completely missed your comment.

      Thank you for your input. There are a few names I know in your list, and others which I don’t. I’ll be sure to look some of them out.

  2. Santanu Roy says:

    Needed Author Neel Mukherjee’s Contact no or mail ID.

    Pls help to get the same asap.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      I’m afraid I can’t personally help you Santanu, other than to point you to Neel’s own website or to his UK publisher, Constable & Robinson (this is a direct link to their contact page). I had a little hunt around myself and couldn’t find a direct email address for him, which is odd.
      Sorry I can’t help you any better than I have 🙁
      Good luck