Anuradha Roy’s debut novel An Atlas of Impossible Longing received heaps of critical praise upon its release in 2011, winding up on several year-end best-of lists. It’s difficult to imagine the same destiny for her hastily-released follow-up, The Folded Earth. Despite its occasional charms, which are genuine, this book sags under many handicaps, not the least of which is a diffuse storyline which is often lethargic and nearly always less than riveting.
(A quick aside for Western readers: Anuradha Roy is not to be confused with Arundhati Roy, the novelist and essayist whose 1997 debut The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize and deserved all the praise it got, and then some.)
The Folded Earth tells the tale of Maya, a young widow in India who flees to an isolated Himalayan village following the tragic death of her husband. She settles into a languid life of teaching, sitting around with the local faded gentry, and reflecting upon her memories as a way of coming to terms with her husband’s fate.
All of this is laid out fairly quickly, along with a cast of supporting characters that includes plucky village teenager Charu, her half-wit uncle Puran and mother Ama, and aging aristocrat Diwan Sahib, who keeps alive the memory of pre-Independence India. Mr Chauhan is present as well, a stuffy, self-important civil servant, as is the General, even older than Diwan Sahib, and Veer, Diwan Sahib’s nephew, whose arrival in town threatens to upend Maya’s semi-frozen existence.
One problem that the reader soon encounters is that, although delineated clearly enough, few of these characters are especially compelling. Apart from Charu and Diwan Sahib, none of them seems important enough to justify the space given to them. The early stages of the novel consist of a series of vignettes, which the reader hopes will coalesce into some central theme or narrative direction. It would be an overstatement to say that such a direction is altogether absent, but it certainly doesn’t happen completely enough to justify the pages upon pages given over to setup and exposition.
Compounding this are the odd shifts in tone from one scene to the next. Maya’s wrenching account of her young husband’s death occurs early on in the story and is the book’s most moving passage, but this recounting of the tragedy and her subsequent bereavement is followed soon after by a slapstick episode featuring trespassing goats and the stuffy Mr Chauhan, whose idea of social uplift consists of posting signs around the village written in rhyming couplets.
It’s hard to quantify why exactly the tonal shift is so unsettling; I lived in Pakistan for ten years, I’ve seen such signs as these, and am well aware that absurdity often rubs shoulders with extreme sadness. That said, though, the jumps in tone here feel pointless, serving only to confuse the reader and undermine the moments of real feeling.
Dangling plot threads have the same effect. An election pops up halfway through the story, with some attendant communal and religious violence; maybe, thinks the reader, this will give shape to the second half of the book. No such luck. Okay then, maybe the strong, elegaic reflections on India’s lost wilderness, exemplified by Diwan Sahib’s obsessive historical writing? Sorry. Roy introduces ideas large and small, only to drop them. Maya’s mother, who dies early on, is discovered with a knife beneath her pillow. This little tidbit is never mentioned again.
The story is told from Maya’s point of view, except when it suits the author to forget this and jump into the consciousness of another character entirely, gaining access to things that Maya could never know. Forget narrative unity, or even comon sense—Maya confidently reports the thoughts, feelings, motivations and aspirations of numerous other characters, especially Charu.
To be fair, Charu is Maya’s confidante and student, so some of her interpretation can be explained away, but there is far too much to swallow. This is especially true when Charu goes on a daring journey late in the book—the most engaging episode here, but one from which Maya is absent, bringing the illogic of her reportage into glaring focus.
Elsewhere, sloppy writing is evident in such moments as when Charu passes a shrine, then “turned superstitiously back”—how, exactly, does one turn superstitiously? Is it different from turning rationally? Later, eagles flying through the sky “become faraway dots quicker than the eye can see.” Forget if you can the cliché blandness of “quicker than the eye can see.” Try instead to picture eagles—eagles, which generally speaking, soar on outstretched wings—jetting through the air so fast that you are unable to follow them. Memo to the author: birds are not rockets.
This book isn’t without merit, it just feels like a rough draft. All the elements of human drama are here, they’re just out of proportion. Too many red herrings and meandering side stories are introduced, only to go nowhere (why does Veer race past her in the Jeep? No idea), while the parts of the story that are truly intriguing remain half-finished.
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