The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

The Lives of OthersShortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, ‘The Lives of Others’ by Neel Mukherjee tells the story of twenty-one year old Supratik Ghosh who has left his comfortable family home in Calcutta/Kolkata to join the Communist Party of India. Set primarily in 1967, the story alternates between Supratik’s new life as a Naxalite activist and guerilla fighter working in the rice fields of West Bengal and the everyday lives of the relatives he has left behind. 

Mukherjee introduces the reader to a large cast of main characters where three generations of the Ghosh family occupy a four storey house in south Calcutta. Now in their sixties, Supratik’s grandparents, Prafullanath and Charubala, live with their sons, spinster daughter, daughters-in law and grandchildren. As well as the consequences of Supratik’s absence, the main backdrop of the story is the steady decline of Prafullanath’s once successful paper manufacturing business.

The setting, politics and themes of ‘The Lives of Others’ will inevitably draw comparisons with ‘The Lowland‘ by Jhumpa Lahiri which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year. However, whereas Lahiri’s prose is mostly quite spare, Mukherjee’s prose is very detailed and densely written. His portrayal of the rivalries between Supratik’s siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews and their interactions with each other is highly complex and nuanced. Overall, I thought the narrative which followed the Ghosh household was more compelling than Supratik’s story but the two strands complement each other well. The story is very well balanced between the more trivial aspects of domestic life and the heavier themes posing questions about poverty, the caste system, politics and how Indian society has changed over time although I think Mukherjee’s real strength lies in describing the former rather than the latter.

‘The Lives of Others’ is an ambitious and richly detailed family saga which thoroughly deserves its place on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist and, in my view, should be a strong contender for the overall prize. I have yet to be persuaded or inspired to read the other five novels although I plan to read ‘Us’ by David Nicholls, which reached the longlist but didn’t make the final cut.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

  1. I really want to read this !

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  2. Col

    I’d heard a few good things about this book and in drawing a comparison with The Lowland, which I really enjoyed, I’m even more tempted! I was full of good intentions not to be seduced by the Booker short list – but I think I’ll give in to temptation!

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  3. Slowly getting into Booker mood now and this sounds a good next step after Karen Joy Fowler.

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  4. This actually does sound rather good, maybe this Booker shortlisted novel will be one I might enjoy, having not been very interested in the whole thing this year.

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  5. This is close to the top of my TBR ao I’m glad to hear you were impressed. I haven’t read any of the Booker shortlist this year but on the blurbs alone this is the one I would want to win…

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  6. Of all the books on the short list, this is the one I cannot wait to read. Everything about it draws me in and I want to read his earlier novel as well. Thanks for the review.

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  7. mushypeasonearth

    I got a freebie of this from NetGalley but not got around to reading it yet. Good review, I’ll push it further up my (mental) TBR list.

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  8. Thanks for the review; I enjoy Indian novels and this looks like being a good one.

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  9. Reblogged this on DAILYBOOKS.ORG and commented:
    A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff has a review of Neel Mukherjee’s book The Lives of Others which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. The Little Blog describes the book as “an ambitious and richly detailed family saga” of three generations of Indian family in 1967 Calcutta. The Little Blog states that the book “deserves it place” on the Booker shortlist. Check out The Little Blog’s review.

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  10. Marie

    I’m (slowly) reading through each of the shortlisted novels and so far, this is the one that strikes me as most typically Booker-winning. I agree that the strength of the novel lay in the descriptions of the lives in that messed-up household, although without Supratick’s story and the lives of the villagers to provide a counterpoint, it would have been lacking something.

    I enjoyed it, but that said, I’m finding that I’m enjoying the novels that didn’t make the shortlist more than those that did.

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  11. Read the longlist and tagged this as a winner. We will not have to wait long to know. Thought the shortlist was quite quixotic in its final choices, like one of the comments above I enjoyed some of the books not on the list, and some not on either list a lot more.

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  12. Pingback: The Man Booker Prize Shortlist Readings 2014 | A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

  13. Pingback: The Man Booker Prize 2015 Longlist | A Little Blog of Books

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