The story follows Krishan, a protagonist of the intelligent, sensitive young man mould, after he receives two pieces of information. An email from former girlfriend Anjum, a free-spirited activist from Delhi who was never going to settle down with him, asking how he’s doing these days. Not long afterwards comes a phone call informing him his grandmother’s former carer Rani has passed away.
Setting out for the funeral, Krishan embarks on a lushly described train journey from his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka to the Northern Province, along the way reminiscing about a similar journey taken with Anjum four years prior when he was in love with her.
The backdrop to this soul searching is civil war and the Tamil independence movement; Krishan looks out of the carriage window to land he’s seen depicted in documentaries and reflects on the legacy of violence, how the minds of individuals keep alive what memorials destroyed by the government were meant to.
Arudpragasam is an elegant, evocative prose stylist, but not without weaknesses. The phrase ‘Krishan knew’ appears too many times as a device to awkwardly attribute the author’s own philosophical musings, on everything from Siddhartha to burial rituals, to his character.
A Garth Greenwell quote on the cover hinted at the possibility of long sentences inside – he’s a Henry James aficionado – and sure enough, the book is packed with them. But for very long sentences to work, they need a pacing that’s sometimes missing here, as more and more information is tacked on, comma after comma, where proper pauses to absorb it all would have been welcome.
But what Arudpragasam also has in common with James is an ability to really get the psychological measure of characters, and it is this that makes A Passage North shine. The prescient, wise insights into human nature, memory and mourning peppering the book left me in admiration of his talent and vision.