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  1. The Lives of Others is long. Way too long. This sprawling Indian family saga charts the rise of the Ghosh family, Calcutta industrialists, as they accumulate wealth in the paper and publishing industry and then proceed to lose it as their country disintegrates and their investments fail to pay off. Against this backdrop, the sons and daughters of the family squabble. The backdrop is good. There is a wonderful insight into the politics of change; the sleaze; the corruption; the instability. We see the contrast between the young Turks of the Communist Party ranged against the old order of the caste system and acceptance of your place in society. The traditions of accumulation of wealth; patronage; marriage and funerals are set out in magnificent detail. There are some great set pieces. The police interrogation, for example, is very well done. But at other times, the injection of long lists of Indian words can grate a bit. The real problem, though, is that the cast is too large and too hard to tell apart. There is a family diagram at the front of the book and it is actually smaller than the reader might expect. This is in part due to the use of various names and forms of address for each character. But also, too many of the characters seem to be placeholders with no real spirit of their own. They do deeds, but there’s no consistency or predictability about most of them. One or two – Madan the servant and Chhaya the ugly sister – do stand out and seem to have underlying motives. But for the most part, it feels more akin to a 19th century Irish Novel of Manners than a 2014 Booker Prize contender. Many of the chapters have a chapterette between them that follows one of the characters (I won’t say which one in case it’s a spoiler) as he roams the countryside sowing the seeds of insurrection. For the most part, this is dull. Sure, it provides a vehicle to see how the other half lives, but it feels like a laboured device weighed down by a revolving cast of revolutionaries and long tracts of Maoist political philosophy. It wears its research heavily. This is awkward because, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that it is the central theme. It does pick up towards the end, but much of it feels padded. Whilst the novel is ostensibly set in 1967-1970 (helpfully signposted at the start of some chapters) there is a tendency to slip back into the past. Hence, one is never quite sure what age some of the characters are at any given moment. Is Somnath a little boy or a grown man? Is Purba a middle aged woman or a child bride? It can get mighty confusing, especially when the lengthy tome has started to outlive its welcome and the reader’s interest in sorting it all out has waned. I am sure The Lives Of Others will have its fans. For this reader, though, it was a bit too familiar. It bore more than a passing resemblance to Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, but twice as long and half as good. ***00
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