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A New World
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B : atmospheric but too languid novel of an Indian tugged between Calcutta and America
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The Hindustan Times
|The Kathmandu Post
|The LA Times
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|The Sunday Times
|The Washington Post
No consensus -- and note the (sub-)continental divide: Indian critics thought much less of the book than Western ones.
Generally there is praise for Chaudhuri's writing and attention to detail, and criticism for the lack of action and energy here.
From the Reviews:
- "At the end of the book, when Joy and Bonnie are on the flight back to America, one is surprised by how little one cares about them or their onward journey. As a short story, perhaps, this could have been brilliant and evocative, perceptive and understated, but as a novel A New World makes dull reading." - Umber Khairi, Daily Telegraph
- "Mr Chaudhuri holds our attention with unobtrusive evocation of place, texture and humanity. (...) There are some tedious passages, but Mr Chaudhuri is capable of producing that quicksilver compound of recognition and surprise, which is, of course, what so often distinguishes art from stage directions." - The Economist
- "Chaudhuris Roman Ein Sommer in Kalkutta ist ein verhaltenes, fast verschwiegenes Buch, die auf den zweiten Blick eine sehr aktuelle Geschichte, auch in europäischer Sicht erzählt. Diese allerdings ist nichts für eilige Leser: Sie würden wenig davon haben." - Winfried Wehle, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "(Chaudhuri) prefers, in this haunting but withdrawn novel, the details of life that "hold back". He is intent on the innocent, the shy and the incidental. "Life goes on", sometimes inconspicuously - and Chaudhuri follows it keenly." - Kate Kellaway, The Guardian
- "Chaudhuri tells his story in a quiet, languid style where everything seems to be happening in gruelling slow motion. (...) A New World is a perspiring book, which despite its moments, has the stillness of a locked-up room. In trying to faithfully reproduce the landscape that is its subject, Chaudhuri’s latest novel seems to have the misfortune of being sucked into it." - Indrajit Hazra, The Hindustan Times
- "A New World actually foregrounds very little. Emotions, impressions, actions are all so muted in this text that a reader has to strain to hear the characters think. Lose concentration for a moment and you are left only with a whiff of fish cooked in mustard oil and the orange flash of a gulmohur tree against a monsoon sky. The poetry of these images is undeniable, but individual beads tend to scatter without a binding thread -- narrative security that A New World conspicuously does not provide. (...) A New World is somnambulist fiction by an author capable of doing better than going into a cataleptic seizure." - Rukmini Bhaya Nair, India Today
- "Though this novel is short and would have been even shorter if not for shrewd overall page setup, the length of the novel seems long particularly for the theme that he plays with. And thematically the novel lacks strength." - Ajit Baral, The Kathmandu Post
- "(W)hat makes Jayojit so interesting is how unexceptional he is. The world he inhabits--divorce, computers, airports, endless mobility--is such a familiar place that most of us scarcely stop to take notice of it. Chaudhuri's acutely observant portrayal renders its blurred outlines and shifting terrain freshly visible." - Merle Rubin, The Los Angeles Times
- "The result is not quite likely to make readers in Calcutta swoon but a novel that is as much an attempt to capture the macrocosm of India in a microcosm as it is an attempt to carry on a particular vernacular tradition in English." - Sumana Raychaudhuri, The Nation
- "(A) sparer, harsher book than its predecessors. Though we are given a great deal of minute and particular information about its characters, we see them less clearly." - Hilary Mantel, The New York Review of Books
- "Mirroring Jayojit's somnolescence, the story fades away at times; mirroring its sweetness, the writing is lovely; mirroring the shards of painful memory that pierce the lethargy -- nails through a fakir's mattress -- the languor of the summer narrative is interrupted by snippets of the year-round realities Jayojit has temporarily shed." - Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review
- "At times, reading some of these passages, you can be reminded of reading Joyce's Dubliners for the first time, where every sentence can seem a small act of beauty. The wider world rarely impinges on these everyday epiphanies." - Tim Adams, The Observer
- "As is usual with Chaudhuri, action is minimal; it’s through a gradual accumulation of details and observations interspersed with the quiet banalities of life that the novel grows. Except that it doesn’t, unfortunately. (...) Chaudhuri demands to be judged by a different yardstick, along with the John Updikes, and he doesn’t come through. His command over detail is shaky, causing him to lump together the significant with the banal too often. Yet, few authors can fail with quite as much elegance, and there are occasional passages of charm and poignancy." - Nilanjana Roy, Outlook
- "The fineness of Chaudhuri's perceptions, the delicacy with which he draws the relationships within the family and his gift for recording the slow passing of days are familiar from his earlier novels. This book is more plotted and thematic, ideas and comparisons are dramatised and the underlying contrasts between India and America give the simple story an additional force. Like Desai he has turned from the old Empire to address a global audience." - Lindsay Duguid, The Sunday Times
- "However, all the drama in Chaudhuri’s novel is battered out by the barrage of quotidian details. What makes Chaudhuri’s narrative style so tedious is the fact that while he has a fine eye for detail, he is completely non-discriminatory in his choice of focus. (...) An indifferent offering at best." - Gargi Bhattacharjee, The Telegraph
- "(T)his episodic, plotless novel whispers its visions to us with an eerie intimacy and power (.....) (W)hat most distinguishes A New World is not its narrative contours, but its repose. It is a gentle book of tremendous patience and sensitivity." - Bill Broun, Times Literary Supplement
- "Indeed, in A New World, Chaudhuri proves himself a determined miniaturist, focusing again and again on the smallest moments in a day, the toothbrushing, the milk drinking, the mail opening, as if these mundanities were somehow revelatory. (...) (H)e has stripped his book of emotion as well as incident, leaving behind nothing but mechanical gestures and surface pleasantries. The result is a carefully written novel strangely devoid of life." - Jenny Offill, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Jayojit Chatterjee, an Indian economist teaching at a university in the United States, is the central character in A New World.
A year after his divorce he returns to Calcutta with his young son, Vikram (nicknamed Bonny), to visit his parents for a few months.
The book merely spans this visit, beginning with Jayojit's arrival in his old world and ending with his departure from it.
It is an almost completely uneventful book -- or rather, it is one that focusses on the small events of everyday life: eating, going to the bank, dealing with neighbors, servants, acquaintances, and relatives.
Calcutta -- indeed all of India -- is no longer Jayojit's world, and his relationship with his parents has also shifted, both due to the distance and his divorce.
He moves tentatively in these old and only semi-familiar places, uncertain of whether he is trying to recapture the old or move on to the new.
Jayojit was married to an Indian woman, Amala, but the marriage fell apart and Amala was awarded custody of the child.
The divorce (and the custody arrangements) continue to weigh on Jayojit; he had gone so far as to challenge the custody arrangement under Indian law (turning to his native land when disappointed by the ways in his adopted country).
The son is more than a trophy, and Jayojit seems a good enough father, but there is also a certain distance there.
The boy understands but does not speak Bengali, only one of the ways in which he is cast from the beginning in a role of vague (and often disinterested) observer rather than participant.
Jayojit wrote one successful book, and wants also to use the time in Calcutta to work on another, dealing with "the ethics of developmental policy".
He has his laptop with him, but is unable to proceed.
Indeed, he seems unable to accomplish much of anything beyond running little errands and going on a few small outings with his son.
He fits comfortably in the parental household, itself a place of quiet and unambitious routine.
Jayojit's father was a Rear-Admiral in the Indian navy and also has some difficulty adjusting to retirement and moving in a world where his rank no longer impresses or is of much use.
Jayojit's mother takes care of the household, adapting to the needs of the three males that occupy it for these months, playing the role of grandmother, mother, or wife as needed.
Chaudhuri is at his best in describing the small scenes of daily life, and he draws a very vivid picture of, for example, the Admiral.
Many of the people -- even those who don't appear on the scene (Jayojit's ex-wife, a potential new one, his brother) -- are well-evoked.
Unfortunately, that is almost all there is to the novel -- and that is not quite enough.
Chaudhuri evokes feeling and mood, and there are nicely realized details -- from the observations about Biman Bangladesh airlines and its passengers to the unreliable servants in the Chatterjee building -- but Chaudhuri does not do quite enough with them.
He does not draw fully on the riches of Calcutta (the city itself surprisingly remains largely incidental).
And too little happens.
There is neither true action, nor -- a possible alternative -- does Jayojit come to terms with himself and his situation.
(There is some self-realization, but not much.)
There are perceptive observations -- Jayojit had "begun to believe in the efficacy of prayer; of aloneness, which is what prayer was" -- but most of it reinforces the picture of Jayojit as an isolated individual, at best a sliver of the whole that he might be were his family (and indeed the whole modern world) not itself fragmented.
Jayojit is not entirely convincing as an economist either -- or perhaps too convincing a representative of the dismal science.
He is lost in the abstract; as to how the theories "intersected with something particular and real, like his father's personal life and decisions -- that was different, and beyond the scope of his discipline."
This did not stop him from offering his advice to Rajiv Gandhi, suggesting how to go about economic reform.
In the new, as yet unfinished, brickwork of India's new economic order, Jayojit had laid an early and important cornerstone.
Given how removed from almost all Indian reality -- especially economic reality -- he appears to be as he moves through the book this does not sound like it could have been a firm cornerstone.
(One might consider it to be an especially sly comment by Chaudhuri on why India's economy is still such a shambles -- because of people such as Jayojit -- but Chaudhuri does not strike one as a writer with the sense of humour for such subtle, clever digs.)
Chaudhuri writes well, but again not well enough to carry such a story.
And there are odd anachronisms.
British-educated Chaudhuri chooses America as the exile for his Indians, but there is nothing in Jayojit's speech that properly reflects this.
Indeed, statements such as saying that Bonny was born in a "nursing home" will strike American readers as bizarre (nursing homes are old-folks homes in America).
Chaudhuri's style is fairly solid, occasionally striking -- and occasionally discordant ("The pictures of Bonny were sans parents").
But overall he does too little with it to draw the reader into this world.
Jayojit browses in a bookshop.
... stared, with some scepticism, at some of the books by Indian writers;
"They not only look light, they feel lightweight as well," he thought, weighing one in his hand.
A New World aims for more, but it too is disappointingly light.
There is substance here, and some decent writing, but Chaudhuri's touch is too delicate, his plot (if one can even call it that) too thin -- and the writing simply not consistently strong enough to sustain it.
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A New World:
Other books by Amit Chaudhuri under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- Indian literature at the complete review
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About the Author:
Indian author Amit Chaudhuri was born in 1962.
He graduated from University College, London, and received his doctorate from Oxford.
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