Review: A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam

“The present, we assume is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted. It overwhelms us in the painful first moments of entry into the world, when it is still too new to be managed or negotiated, remains by our side during childhood and adolescence, in those years before the weight of memory and expectation…”

The opening lines of Anuk Arudpragasam’s stunning book, A Passage North, Longlisted for the Booker Prize, draws us into a world of post civil was Sri Lanka, capturing the suffering through Tamil narrator, Krishan. The story begins with a call to let him know that his grandmother’s former carer, Rani, has died unexpectedly. He is also grappled with a recent email from a lost love, Anjum, an activist he met in Delhi four years previously.

As Krishan journeys by train from Colombo to the Northern Province for the funeral, he begins a journey through his own soul. The story is beautifully written, with flowing sentences that weave the reader through his thoughts and longings. A Passage North is a memory of the lost, the missing and the dead, casting a light on the ravages of war through the eyes of Krishan, a PhD student, living in Delhi as he watches the news unfold in 2009.

The book is meditative, a stream of consciousness in some respects, and an illustration of the impact of the connections we make and how it affects the human psyche when they are lost. Inspiration for the rhythm and style of the book is taken from Thomas Bernhard and Javier Marias.

What struck me most, was Arudpragasam’s insight into the way that men can intimidate women through a gaze or certain body language…

“In Delhi and many of the Hindi-speaking states more generally male stares were different, were intensely unselfconscious and intensely unrelenting, so that even when you weren’t being harassed in more explicit verbal or physical ways you still had to use all of your psychological resources to resist these gazes in the course of each day, to prevent these men from trying to enter your soul through your eyes, like strangers who enter the privacy of your house without permission and without even bothering to take off their shoes.”

The sensitivity with which he tackles the subject of Anjun’s sexuality in a culturally oppressive environment, is both powerful and subtle.

I would liken the book in some ways to being lost inside a painting, a weaving of colours and shapes. If you enjoy literary fiction, I highly recommend this. It’s slow in pace, so don’t expect snappy twists and turns, but if you want a journey into Tamil culture and an insight into love and loss through the ravages of war, this won’t disappoint.

Arudpragasam is a bright, insightful writer, with much to share from his internal world. The sentences are sharply observed and intensely hypnotic. It will be interesting to see how it fares as the shortlist is put together. A compelling and thought-provoking read.

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