Afterthoughts: A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee

A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee  (Constable and Robinson) In a Nutshell: Despite suffering slightly from being overambitious in its scope, this is a stunning debut novel from Neel Mukherjee – one which throbs with poetic and cultural resonance.

And so I’ve come to the end of what has been something of a remarkable journey with Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart (Constable & Robinson), and it’s time to offer up my afterthoughts. Before I do that though, I should perhaps spend a moment or two telling you what the novel is all about. You can catch a fuller introduction to A Life Apart in my forethoughts post for the novel – which includes some notes on my opening impressions – so for this introduction I’ll be brief:

A Life Apart tells the story of Ritwik Ghosh, a twenty-something Bengali who comes to the UK to study at Oxford, following the unexpected death of both of his parents. Alienated and alone, the novel follows Ritwik as he strives to make himself fit into his new life, while coming to terms with a number of demons from his past. Running alongside the main story thread is another, one which Ritwik himself is in the process of penning. It’s the tale of an equally alienated person, the English tutor Miss Gilby, who is trying to work and live in a restless Bengal, during the time of the British Raj.

So that’s a brief rundown on the storyline for A Life Apart. How does the reading of it work out? Well, from the outset it’s important to note that this novel is, on occasion, searingly explicit. It tackles themes such as homosexuality in frank and graphic detail, and it doesn’t pull any punches. So for that reason I’d have to say that A Life Apart isn’t a novel for the easily offended. However, if the reader can get past this level of explicitness – whose inclusion is, to be fair, not so much for shock value, but as part of the exploration of the complexity of Ritwik’s character – then a novel of exquisite authorship awaits.

Quite simply A Life Apart is a stunning creation, and Mukherjee shows himself at times to be something of a literary genius. His observations are often so acute and so incredibly well conveyed that the reader is left gasping. From descriptions of the aftermath of a monsoon to conveying the despairing life of the illegal migrant worker; from living under the terror of an abusive mother, to getting an impression of what it’s like to be sitting alone in a toilet cubicle in a public lavatory, in the dead of night, awaiting ‘pick ups’, Mukherjee paints his story canvas with such ‘colour’ and vividness that the reader can’t help but be profoundly connected with both story and character. As an example:

Then there was the business of avoiding the bloated, floating carcasses of dogs and cows, the used sanitary towels, adrift, sometimes wrapping themselves around the legs with a bloody will of their own, the daily rubbish of human living which elsewhere got thrown in bins and taken away in garbage trucks but which in Calcutta sat around almost every street corner, accumulated into largish hillocks, rotted, and then got partially dispersed by the rain in the streets. Eggshells, vegetable matter, food scrapings, bread, fruit peel, paper, rags, bits and pieces of cloth, hair balls, dead rats, rancid food, floor sweepings, congealing vomit, a turd or two, blister packs, bottles, jars, plastic bags, containers. And disease, DISEASE, DISEASE … even thinking about it sent that familiar shudder down his [Ritwik’s] spine.

As sublimely written as A Life Apart is however, it’s sadly not without its faults. As good as Mukherjee is in his writing, and as profound as his observations definitely are, it often feels as though certain themes and relationships within the story are left severely lacking both in their exploration and in their resolution. In other words it feels as though one is only getting a sampling of a particular aspect of the story, rather than a deeper, more fuller picture. The feeling is, that perhaps Mukherjee has been just a little over ambitious in his scale and scope for this novel, shoehorning in as much as he can, leaving him with no option but to be brief in his explorations. And when reading, this is something which is wholly apparent. There’s a real sense that a number of the key elements of the story are more ‘scratched upon’ than dug to any great depth, and this brings slight disappointment.

When taking the novel as a whole there is good reason why there are so many loose ends left untied (and that reason why will become clear towards the end of the novel). But I would have liked to have seen more time spent on some genuinely fascinating aspects to the story – such as Ritwik’s abusive upbringing, his time spent in the despairing world of the illegal migrant worker, and most fascinating of all to me – his extraordinary relationship with the aged Anne Cameron. These aspects of the story are all introduced by Mukherjee with such power and profoundness that their introduction holds so much promise. And while that promise is delivered upon to some degree, it’s sadly not to the depth that one may have first hoped it would be.

That said it’s really only the main story thread in A Life Apart that is affected in this way. The story running parallel to the main one – the one following Miss Gilby’s life in India during the time of the British Raj – is an altogether different matter. Fully rounded and containing just the right amount of depth, Miss Gilby’s Bengali ‘adventures’ do nothing but add an exquisite layer to the novel, which both brings a deeper sense of Indian culture to the novel (a reason why I wanted to read it in the first place), while reinforcing the novel’s key theme of solitude and alienation. The fact that Mukherjee has chosen to juxtapose a Bengali man living in England with an Englishwoman living in Bengal (albeit from the fictional viewpoint of Ritwik) is a genius stroke, and it works incredibly well.

So the ultimate question of course, is whether A Life Apart worth reading? Well, I’d have to say that it absolutely is. For a debut novel the breadth and scope is remarkable, and Mukherjee’s poetically sublime prose is a real beauty to behold; far too good to be ignored. The novel, as discussed, is not without its faults, but such is quality of the writing and the profoundness of Mukherjee’s observations, that these ‘faults’ become more of a secondary consideration. I will say again that A Life Apart is definitely not one for the easily offended, but for everyone else, I highly recommend it.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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

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. I was just wondering if I should give this book a try! All signs point to yes.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      Absolutely Lija. Even with its faults it’s still a very accomplished novel.

  2. Great after thoughts Rob. I thought this book was fantastic and would sincerely love to see this get a nod in the Man Booker Longlist but we will see. I thought you were right in the fact there was so much to be explored in the book and yet had Mukherjee done this I don’t know if I would have liked it quite as much, it would have been epic which could have gone against it, or made it even more of a masterpiece. An author I will definitely be reading the further works of.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      Hi Simon,
      I agree! Had Mukherjee explored all elements of the novel to their fullest then A Life Apart would have been a novel of epic proportions. Personally, I’d have preferred it if it was, or if he had at least cut down on the numbers of elements in his story. Ritwik’s relationship with Anne Cameron is screaming out with regards to being explored further, as is his Mukherjee’s exploration of the plight of the migrant worker; Mukherjee began to paint an incredible vivid picture with regards to both of these elements of the story but left them massively under explored. A real shame.

      As for A Life Apart getting on the Booker longlist? Yep I agree it’s worthy, but probably not of getting any further i.e. on to the shortlist. Were it more fully rounded? Then it would have had the potential for overall winner.


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