A State of Freedom – Neel Mukherjee


Exquisitely written, cleverly structured, powerfully resonant to the very last line. . . . A profoundly intelligent and empathetic novel of privilege and poverty, advancement and entrapment.      – Wall Street Journal

Simply gorgeous. . . . A State of Freedom is a marvel of a book, shocking and beautiful, and it proves that Mukherjee is one of the most original and talented authors working today.         – NPR

Many of the sections are sprinkled with otherworldly moments and spectral figures, so that these narratives read almost like ghost stories, while others are rooted firmly in the achingly realistic, unequal, and unjust soil of modern day India.            – Boston Globe

Without announcing his experimental intent too loudly, Mukherjee rips the meat of the novel (imagery, incident, social insight, feeling, mood) from the bones (narrative and character development in the usual sense) and feeds his readers only the richest pieces. . . . Mukherjee looks straight at the ugliest parts of an unequal society and uses what he finds to construct something beautiful.                  – Harpers

Wellllllll…not quite.  It’s definitely a different and well-written book.  I’m just not sure I’m on board with “simply gorgeous” and “otherworldly.”

The novel takes place in India (the author is from Calcutta and now lives in London).  It’s made up of five different stories that on first read have only scant association with each other.  The first story is written in the first person and is about an Indian man who now lives in America returning to India with his small son and showing him the sights (the son has never been to India).  The second story is also written in the first person and is about an Indian man now living in London (just like the author) who returns to India to visit his parents.  The third and fourth stories are about Indian people who are far down the social scale trying to scrape out a living – both are written in the third person.  The final story is about another lower class Indian man – related to people in the third story – and is written in the first person, but – wait for it – without punctuation.  this of course isnt irritating at all

The book’s intent is to show the vast differences in class in India and how the rich are completely unaware of the harsh and difficult lives of the poor.  I’m sure there’s a message meant for the rest of the world also.  In communicating this message, however, the author makes his stories brutal – there’s not much happiness in the book.  If you ever saw “Slumdog Millionaire”, it’s somewhat similar to that in that the people in the story don’t have a lot of happiness or hope.  The first chapter ends {SPOILER ALERT} with the main character’s six-year-old son dying.  This happens out of the blue.  And this is one of the easier stories to read.

As I was reading the book, I assumed the final chapter would pull everything together and make the book make sense.  When the final chapter was just another story – albeit about a character mentioned earlier in the book – and was written without punctuation, I was pretty disappointed and thought the author had kind of cheated me.  However, I went back and re-read the first chapter and realized that it was actually the chapter that pulls things together (mostly).  When you read the first chapter you don’t realize this because you don’t know any of the characters.

All that said, however, I still had somewhat of a “What was the point of that?” feeling after I finished the book.  It IS well-written, and he does a heck of a job putting you into the harsh lives of the characters.  But I guess I like stories that have a point beyond just the telling – I want some kind of resolution, and there wasn’t any.

So would I recommend it?  If you like happy stories with an ending – no.  If you like reality and aren’t bothered by harsh stories that depict real society and kind of like books that are a little off-center – it’s for you.  I’m not sure I’d recommend it to me if I hadn’t already read it (“Oh dude, you’re blowing my mind!”), but for others – if they’re like the Wall Street Journal, Harpers, NPR and the Boston Globe – they might like it a lot and consider it otherworldly and simply gorgeous.

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