Review by Marie Arana
Anuradha Roy's An Atlas of Impossible Longing is a novel to convince us that boldly drawn sagas with larger-than-life characters are still possible in a relentlessly postmodern world. Apart from its setting just outside Calcutta, Roy's Atlas is hardly distant. A sprawling epic of love, class and ambition, it has more in common with Dreiser's An American Tragedy than it does with The Mahabharata. In it, a single act of pity rattles down generations to break a caste's rules, test a family's mettle and throw together two unlikely childhood friends, who will negotiate every circuit of human love. It's a big story.
It begins in 1907, when Amulya leaves Calcutta with his young wife, Kananbala, and travels to the backwater of Songarh to open a factory to manufacture herbal potions and perfumes. They produce a son, who is a joy to them, but the quiet cramp of small-town life affects the lonely mother. She starts to evince strange symptoms, begins speaking out of turn and is given to obscene outbursts. As months go by, it is clear she has gone mad.
Into her altered world step two newcomers: a girl, Bakul, whose birth killed her mother; and a boy, Mukunda, of indeterminate caste, whose uneasy adoption into the family becomes the single act of pity that reverberates through the generations.
Mukunda and Bakul spend idyllic days in each other's company, but time deals harshly with that sibling love. There comes a point when the family begins to worry about the wisdom of their growing up together - there is the question of burgeoning sexualities, the question of castes.
It would be unfair to tell a prospective reader more, yet we are but a short way through a very long, complicated story. Suffice it to say that the boy is sent off, cast out into an uncertain, Dickensian future, and, as a result, boy, girl and family are forever altered. In the end, a fiendenters the scene to ensure - as must happen in every good story - that the first shall be last and the last, first. Pieces fall into place, perhaps not entirely as anticipated, and readers are well rewarded.
An Atlas of Impossible Longing
By Anuradha Roy
Free Press, 319 pages, $14