- Book: Latitudes of Longing
- Location: Central Asia, South East Asia
- Author: Shubhangi Swarup
A novel to transport the reader to the Andaman Islands, Burma, Nepal, Kathmandu and finally the Karakoram Mountains.
This is Swarup’s first work of fiction (she is a Mumbai-based journalist) and it comprises four novellas, entitled Islands, Faultline, Valley and Snow Desert. The story follows the vaguely interrelated lives of characters who are all trying to find connections with their planet and with fellow human beings. The first, and by far the most engaging, novella is set in the Andaman Islands and tells the story of a scientist, Girija Prasad, educated at Oxford who has just married Chanda Devi, a mystic who can talk to trees and ghosts. This seemingly ill-matched couple find their way to mutual respect and love, although their lives are prematurely blighted by tragedy. Unfortunately, the following sections don’t live up to the promise of the first.
From the lush beauty of the Andaman Islands, in the second novella, Faultline, we follow Girija and Chanda’s maid, Mary, to Burma as she searches for her son, a political prisoner, who has renamed himself Plato. There are moments in this narrative that are honest and frankly terrifying but, sadly, it is not consistent. Then, we veer off to Valley, a narrative that follows Plato’s friend, Thapa, a drug smuggler with a good heart who becomes besotted with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter and to whom he tells stories. In the final section, Snow Desert, Thapa travels to an isolated village in the Karakoram Mountains, where he meets Apo and hears his story
If this all sounds fairly disjointed, that’s because it is. It is an epic, sweeping tale, that doesn’t allow the reader enough time to engage before it moves on. Some of the characters really work, particularly the couple in the opening section and there are parts of the novel that are deeply affecting and that make you think, but it’s not consistent. I liked the touches of humour, again notably in the opening section, when the writer allows us some amusement at the idiocy and idiosyncrasies of life but they were fleeting. There is, without doubt, great promise here, for Swarup is capable of beautiful, lyrical prose but often it becomes overwritten and the reader is lost in a plethora of detail. There is no doubt, as noted in the acknowledgements, that Swarup has done a great amount of research into place and scientific fact, but we don’t pause long enough to absorb place and the science in the novel, while interesting, tends not to be integrated into the narrative.
All in all, Latitudes of Longing just doesn’t hang together as a book; it’s trying to do too much and to cover too much ground, which is a shame, as there is evidence in here of all the elements needed to create good fiction.