In continuing with my attempt to read the Booker Prize 2021 longlist, I finally finished Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North (Random House, 2021). While I didn’t hate it, it is certainly at the bottom of my rankings. (It still comes in head and shoulders ahead of Second Place, though.) My issue with the novel is not with the story or even the writing itself, but with the writing style. The story is captivating, and, at times, the writing is beautiful; however, the meandering, introspective narrative is off-putting to this reader.
A Passage North puts the reader deep within the recesses of Krishan’s mind, a place that is often selfish and whiny as he muddles over how to respond to an email he received from an ex-lover while he is traveling north to attend the funeral of Rani, his grandmother’s former caregiver. When Krishan receives the call from Rani’s daughter that she has fallen in their well and died, he immediately decides something is afoot and he must go to her funeral, to represent his family, but more importantly to determine the true root of her demise. He takes the train north, into the war-torn areas of Sri Lanka, his stream of consciousness flitting from Rani and her relationship with his grandmother and her cause of death, to Anjum, the bisexual activist he’d fallen in love with years before who’d recently reached out.
Krishan was distanced from the war in Sri Lanka by virtue of where he was born and raised. He didn’t experience the brutal destruction firsthand, even though his father was killed by a bomb, and this distance makes him seem little more than a casual observer in his own country. The observations are tinged with guilt, especially when he talks about Rani’s dead sons and the children born of the diaspora who have returned for a visit after the bombs have stopped.
It is at the cremation ceremony, beautifully depicted and arguably the best section of the entire novel, that Krishan becomes more than a casual observer discussing a horror that left him relatively unscathed; as he watches the flames creep toward Rani’s body, he finally feels the full weight of the impacts of a decades long civil war on his home. Suddenly, he is a participant.
While I dislike the writing style and found Krishan insufferable, I don’t think this novel, with its subtle survivor’s guilt, would have been as effective in any other style. If philosophical reads and getting lost in the narrator’s headspace are things you enjoy, read this book.