Book review: Latitudes Of Longing, by Shubhangi Swarup

This is a very perplexing book to review. There are parts which are affecting and force the reader to think, and parts which are affected and tosh. It is one of the oddest mishmashes of talent and error I have had to review. It might work for some readers, but it always shows its working. It might make other readers annoyed at its clockwork plot. Some readers might find it inspirational; others might find it sententious.

Shubhangi Swarup

It begins in the Andaman Islands, where a scientist obsessed with continental drift has just married a mystic who can talk to trees and ghosts. Their life is not without tragedy, and as we reach the closing scene of part one, it seems the narrative is going on its own drift. We cut to the maid of the couple, who is looking for her son, who is a revolutionary that has taken the name “Plato”. At the end of the second section there is a scene almost designed to be wrenching, and yet which comes across as rather pre-emptively planned. In the third act we have a drug dealer telling stories to a lost soul, and the finale is a knitting of the stories, with the different warps and weaves tugging into a knot.

The long shadow of Salman Rushdie looms over the first section (including a person not from Britain negotiating a breakfast, just as it was in The Satanic Verses); a writer like Jhumpa Lahiri hovers over the second; the third has a whiff of the rags to riches trajectory as described by such writers as Aravind Adiga. Finally the reader gets the David Mitchell moment, when all the strands are revealed as a tapestry, the echoes over time come to the fore and the coincidences have been fate all along.

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There is a structural way through these diverse parts of the book. The reader goes from the Andamans to Burma, to Nepal, to Kathmandu, to the Karakoram Mountains, and takes in a great deal of history around how those regions (and India, and Pakistan, and China and Bangladesh) have vied over the history of the places. It’s a neat conceit, but it’s a conceit none the less. That they all lie on a fault line is significant (and the idea of fault lines is important both conceptually and literally). It is geology as theology.

The best section is the one about “Plato”, because it is honest and visceral and terrifying. The descriptions of solitary confinement in Myanmar are truly wrenching. But it is already bookended with the reason versus religion of the opening. If we are to believe in a world where colonial ghosts turn up, and where the male opening protagonist goes to “Blimey College” in Oxford, to what extent do we trust the reality of electrical wires and broken teeth and torture? In a sense, you cannot play both hands. If faeries exist, then whistle your way out of horror.

The scientific material is interesting, but unintegrated. It is often done as info-dumps, as someone explains to someone else something that is interesting. Again, the seemingly profound undercuts the radical action. Of course, a string of volcanic eruptions is a cause for concern. But placed alongside such platitudes as “Sitting under a sky bigger than all the oceans and continents combined. As vast as the universe, the solitude transformed into the meditations of the universe”. This is not the magic realism of the angry times, but the palliative nonsense that came afterwards. Nothing is everything and everything is nothing and something is somewhere and somebody is nobody. I am not saying that Shubhangi Swarup believes any of this, but it plays straight out of the Paulo Coelho and Deepak Chopra playbook. Of course, we learn that love is all.

The final problem with the book is simply style. One of the authors who lauds it calls it lyrical; I would say that it merely waxes lyrical. Incorrect. It wanes lyrical. There is a determination, almost a ventriloquism, in the writing. Take this sentence: “To him, the value of gemstones – the consistency of imperial jade, the malleability of gold, the hardness of diamonds, and the vibrant pigeon blood of rubies – lies in metaphor.” That is one of many lists the reader must trudge through. Time and again, the novel overwrites itself. Whoever thought that their blouse was “embroidered with sweat”? Or about a supposedly significant list of “bees, insects, flies, flowers, dirt, bark, wasps, shells”? Or, during a drug binge, “Newborns who had opened their eyes for the first time, glimpsing what humans never could, the two revelled in the magic imbued in the ordinary”? Undercut inside the novel, there is, as always a telling phrase. One character proclaims that “reality is the worst story ever written”. For a book with ecological anxieties and political concerns, it seems apposite that the words come from the mouth of an opium trader. But they pervade the novel. If all that survives of us is stories, then I pity the future.

There is ability here, but it struggles as it is strangled. This seemed to me, on reflection, like a series of creative writing exercises welded together to masquerade as a novel of ideas. There are few ideas, and fewer characters than one might care for and about. If every one of them died, or was reincarnated, or resurrected, or restored to life, I simply couldn’t believe in them enough. My bad.

Latitudes Of Longing, by Shubhangi Swarup, Riverrun, £16.99

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