Participating in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel requires me to stack books up against one another, something I’m not always inclined to do but which can be a revealing exercise. In some respects, comparisons are impossible because all books are different and have different goals and interests. How could one compare a cantaloupe, an eggplant, and a salmon steak? Each can be excellent in its own way. And how might an excellent eggplant dish stack up against a mediocre salmon dish if you love salmon and don’t care for eggplant?
As I near the end of my Booker reading, having read 11 of the 13 books, I’m finding these strange and arbitrary comparisons to be my primary lens for contemplating these books. And so I’m finding it difficult to discuss Sleeping in Jupiter by Anuradha Roy simply for what it is.
It is an excellent book, with pleasing prose and an intriguing story that puts it a cut above the string of merely good books that I read early on. The story is set is Jarmuli, India, and consists of several overlapping storylines. The center of gravity is a young filmmaker named Nomi, the only first-person narrator in the novel, which is mostly written in third person. Nomi was born in India and lost her parents suddenly and violently before being sent to an ashram run where the guru abused the young girls in his care. Over the course of the novel, we learn more about her story and why she came back to this place that is the source of so much trauma. As she journeys to Jarmuli, she meets three older women who are taking a vacation together, and their adventures and (mis)adventures also feature heavily in the novel. We also meet Nomi’s assistant, a local tour guide, a tea seller, and various others who are linked in ways they are unaware of.
An obvious comparison to make is with A Little Life, which also includes childhood sexual abuse and its long-term effects, and Roy’s handling of the subject is an example of exactly the route I wish Yanigihara had taken. Nomi’s experiences, which shared some strong parallels to Jude’s, were more believable for being less extreme. (And her experiences are pretty extreme.) This is a much shorter book than A Little Life, however, so the abuse and, especially, the long-term after-effects are explored in less detail, which, for some, might make this an unsatisfying read. For me, it was enough.
As I finished the book, I was also reminded of the ending of Did You Ever Have a Family, which also featured a wide range of interconnected characters. By the end of Clegg’s novel, the stories are tied up neatly, people’s connections are revealed and few threads are left hanging. It is some tidy plotting, perhaps even too tidy. Some readers might find that it feels engineered, but I so wanted to see these resolutions happen that I was happy when they did. But the author’s job is not necessarily to satisfy a reader’s desire for order. Perhaps it’s a bolder choice to leave some things hanging, to let mysteries remain. In general, I appreciate when authors do that.
Which brings me to Sleeping on Jupiter. Nomi is searching for clues to her past, and she gets so close to those clues without ever seeing them. She’s just never quite in the right place at the right time to hear a familiar melody or notice a familiar dimple. Roy leaves those signposts in place for the reader without outright explaining what they mean. I respect that very much; it makes this book feel more intelligent than Clegg’s. And yet…
I wanted very badly for Nomi to have those moments of recognition that I experienced—to find at least some of what she was looking for. It’s not honest, and it’s not real, but I don’t always want reality in books (yet I complain about A Little Life‘s unreality).
More bothersome, however, in Roy’s case are the connections that aren’t quite made for the reader. There are some details that seem so deliberately planted and some characters’ actions that seem so meaningful but that don’t quite lead anywhere—if the answers are there, I missed them. Roy avoids Clegg’s engineered unreality, but is the result a little too messy, a little too disconnected?
Probably which ending is better will depend on reader preference for tidiness versus messiness. I’m inclined at the moment to tip slightly toward Roy’s method, but I’m still frustrated at what I didn’t find and the threads that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. (The storyline of the three vacationing friends was where most of these threads appeared, and I’m not ruling out the possibility that there are clues I missed.)
I fear that sharing these flaws makes it sound like the book isn’t very good, which is inaccurate. My ruminating on these flaws is a side effect of the exercise in comparison that is the shadow panel. Under ordinary circumstances, I could say of Roy that it leaves a few more threads hanging than I’d have liked and of Clegg that the ending is a shade too neat without having to decide which approach I like better.
It may be that such exercises in comparison aren’t so great for the books under consideration because they can’t be evaluated solely on their own merits, but as a reader, I find the questions raised through the comparisons to be well worth pursuing. Having to choose between the eggplant and the cantaloupe makes me think through my own tastes, and there’s pleasure to be had in that.
Other Shadow Panel reviews: Dolce Bellezza