A reviewer’s duty, before forming responses of any kind, is to read, and to read carefully. That responsibility begins from the moment the text is selected, whatever the seductions of the title, cover or writer.
Anuradha Roy’s third novel is indeed seductively packaged. Sleeping on Jupiter revels in a very beautiful jacket and it is perhaps no surprise that Roy is also a visual artist and ceramicist. Accordingly, her poetic prose is at its finest in the lyrical and hauntingly image-dense passages of the closing, and most particularly the opening, chapters. Sequenced into a series of “days”, “Before the First Day” begins with striking resonance “The year the war came closer I was six or seven and it did not matter to me.”
Sometimes, serendipitously for fiction, and sadly for human reality, patterns in a book echo tragic world events unravelling at the time of publication; events which could not have been foreseen accurately at the time of writing. As Roy’s little girl is pushed out in a small boat, crowded with strangers and a malevolent crew, torn apart from her known world and family, she is bound for an unknown place and an uncertain reception. The contemporary parallels are coincidental, but enriching nonetheless. Anyone hoping that those parallels might run further through the narrative is likely to be disappointed. That, of course is hardly Roy’s fault.
The central character, Nomi, journeys in her beads, multiple earrings, thin vests and loose khaki combats to Jarmuli, a seaside temple town, seeking her past, and perhaps revenge. Possibly that is a problem, as her motivation seems quickly transparent. Characters she meets and remembers immediately reveal their bounty, or lack of it. That temple guru is noticeably creepy, the underbelly of the town predictably seamy, and no-one develops, twists or surprises very much. A trio of old ladies holidaying, and their co-incidental reappearances, are perhaps too comedic and uncomfortably close to a sharp Meera Syal parody to reveal much depth or elicit real concern in the reader.
Yet the central concerns here are important: women’s experience of violence, the sexual abuse of children, and most pertinently, that last in the dangerous form of figures in organised religion. Just as The Magdalen Laundries needfully exposed a very real issue in Irish life, these are serious and widespread sores in contemporary Indian life. Unquestionably, Roy has researched meticulously, and anything opening awareness to help bring about change is to be welcomed. That in itself does not guarantee a wonderful book, and sometimes the passion of such a great cause can in itself be an impediment, as I suspect it is here. There are certain narrative problems, and the rather too obvious and frequent coincidences bring predictability in places. Elsewhere, as in those bookending chapters, and in the recitations of the chapter of repeated “I remember” flashbacks, the more slanted telling is beautiful and harrowing indeed. Would that Roy had taken this further.
There is much to appreciate here. India stars, as would be expected from a keen-eyed wordsmith, and indeed the settings and atmosphere far outperform the characters. Roy’s prose is poetic indeed; “A red bead of betel-juiced spittle trickled”, and yet she avoids the cloying over-opulence which can attend the extended prose poem, and perhaps especially one set in such filmic locations. I suspect too, that the reader with a better knowledge of Indian poetry than I have will access layers that I cannot yet open.
Morally commendable though this is, readers wishing to hear a fiction writer testify brilliantly and unexpectedly on behalf of children’s experience of trauma and conflict might seek out Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip. Readers wondering if this lyrical Indian tale is Booker-winning material, might look closely at the writer’s name, as shamefully this reviewer did not initially. Find The God of Small Things where the too-near named and extraordinary Arudhati Roy shows how it is really done.