Claire is a young single mother who is working in one of Britain’s last remaining shoe factories. Arun makes hand-sewn chappal (leather slippers) in India. Claire’s adult life is formed by a teenage relationship while Arun is a recovered alcoholic and a grandfather.
At first glance, neither of them have anything in common, except maybe that they both work with footwear. But as the story continues, the parallels between their lives become clearer: they are both trying to live their lives while learning from their past. This is the story of The Living, Anjali Joseph’s third novel.
The India-born, Britain-based Joseph is known for her lyrical style of writing and she has a flair for capturing tender moments as well as hilarious ones.
It takes a special kind of talent to capture the everyday – from the interesting to the mundane, as well as the loneliness, fear and doubt.
Her debut novel, Saraswati Park (2010), catapulted her into the limelight, and has the same themes of rejection and sheer bad luck that can be found in The Living.
Claire and Arun’s parallel lives correspond with the settings of London and Kolhapur, cementing how simultaneously similar and dissimilar their situations are – Claire is a single mother who is living an unfulfilled life raising a teenage boy all by herself and is having an affair with a younger man, while Arun is a grandfather who’s lived his life and finds himself thinking about his past mistress and his time as an immigrant in Britain.
Told from both their perspectives in alternating chapters, the story starts in the middle of their lives, and the reader is slowly given their history and memories.
The premise is great, and Joseph’s style is reason enough to read this book. Yet, I found Claire and Arun to be remarkably unremarkable people.
The Living initially began as a short story in the literary magazine Granta: India. Perhaps this is why the story never really comes together as one cohesive novel.
Instead, it feels a little like two separate stories that don’t really mesh, very much like the wrong piece of jigsaw being forced to fit.
This shows clearly in how differently I found myself relating to Arun and Claire. I found Arun is a lot more relatable, perhaps because he has lived a full life, while Claire is a little harder to relate to – she’s a lot more reserved, and also perhaps due to her circumstances.
I think the problem for me is that there is no actual climax in this story for Arun and Claire. It’s a series of moments and little things that make up life, from Arun reminiscing about a past love and Claire taking that first step to moving on from her past.
This seems to be Joseph’s message, that life doesn’t need to be made up of big dramatic moments; instead, it’s the small ones that you don’t think about that actually make up our lives.
Joseph’s point is very valid, and I see what she’s trying to do in capturing life in the small moments. But as clever as the writing is, it’s not an easy book to read simply because of the lack of drama (to put it simply).
The Living is a good read, if one has the patience to read it to the end. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re looking for something that’s quietly appealing, give this one a try.
Author: Anjali Joseph
Publisher: Fourth Estate, fiction