All the Lives We Never Lived: A Novel
“The power of this well-written novel grows as the story moves forward both historically and fictionally. Characters become increasingly likeable and worthy of our sympathetic response to their words and deeds.”
For her fourth novel, Anuradha Roy has chosen the perfect title. The convergent characters whose lives are chronicled in this story of displacement, longing, love, and loss, each in their own way, exist in realms that make them feel displaced. They wish to be somewhere they are not, somewhere imagined or remembered, someplace where they can feel whole, authentic, and most of all, loved.
The story is told from the point of view of a young boy named Myshkin, remembered as the tale progresses as that boy grows into solitary manhood. He recalls his mother, Gayatri, a young, creative, frustrated soul; his harsh, pseudo-spiritual father; his loving physician grandfather; his mischievous chums; and the two European strangers who appear at his village in India, changing everyone and everything they come into contact with.
One of those strangers is the real-life Walter Spies, born in Germany in 1895, who lived in Bali most of his life when he wasn’t traveling. Spies was an energetic, influential painter who spent much of his time in Indonesia exploring spiritual motifs drawn from his adopted culture. A free spirit who performed Western and Indonesian music, he wrote a study of dance in Bali, and stimulated new forms in Balinese art. Spies died when the ship he was on while a WWII prisoner was bombed. Roy imagines what might have happened if he had made it to India.
Beryl de Zoete is the other (real) stranger who shows up with Spies. Born in London in 1879, the classically trained ballerina revered dance as the noblest of the art forms. She dedicated her life and career to traveling around the world in search of the most interesting dances to record. A dance critic, occasional author, and “pioneer of the modern concept of doing what you love,” as one biographer put it, she spent much of her time in Indonesia and especially Bali, collaborating and no doubt cavorting with Spies.
When these two people enter Gayatri’s life she is a frustrated artist suffering the oppressions of pre-WWII social norms for women in India. She loves her son and her one friend Lisa, who runs a guest house, but she can hardly tolerate her conventional husband, who says things like, “There’s a time for everything, Gay. Now is not the time to think of your needs alone. This is your fundamental problem. Your notion of freedom is superficial, you can’t tell the difference between personal and national freedoms.”
He says this as India’s struggles for freedom are beginning. And in doing so, he illuminates the novel’s theme: freedom. National freedom and individual freedom, the former personified by Myshkin’s father, the latter advocated by Spies and de Zoete as an internal struggle tears at Gayatri’s soul.
In response to her husband’s reprimand, Gayatri says, “Do you know what I would do if I were free at this minute? I would leave this house. I would go away and never come back. I would paint. I would be able to look at the sky without feeling it’s a glass jar under which I am trapped.”
Therein lies the foreshadowed story of Gayatri’s escape from domestic confines and marital constraints, because Spies and de Zoete have walked through her door.
As the story develops, so too does the war, encroaching on Asia and the idyllic Bali, altering life there forever just as Gandhi and his followers have been doing as India’s independence becomes inevitable.
The power of this well-written novel grows as the story moves forward both historically and fictionally. Characters become increasingly likeable and worthy of our sympathetic response to their words and deeds.
Through Gayatri’s letters to Lisa rather late in the book, we find her less enigmatic and easier to embrace. Here, for example, is an excerpt from letters that help us appreciate the deeply difficult decision that has led her to Bali:
“I am working very, very hard. I am immersed in work, it thrills me & consumes everything I have. . . . It’s as if I have turned a corner of a winding road that seemed to have no end and I have found my way of painting, what appears true & interesting & real. . . . How odd it is to call painting ‘work.’ [My husband] always insisted it was a ‘nice hobby’ for women, painting pictures. Everything remained permitted as long as it remained trivial. He should see the way I paint now!”
Even Myshkin, and his father, come to understand what drove Gayatri to wander, although typically his father expresses this understanding within the context of his own journeying. “The world thought it was an unbalanced thing to do [but] so many seekers have spurned family and children, left them bereft for years on end. And yet, would anyone say that it was a mistake for him [sic] to have left?”
In the end, no one achieves the life they should have lived. Outside forces, like war, have huge effects and obscure what might have been. Still, each character, in his or her own way, has traveled through their lives, more or less on their own terms. They, and Anurandha Roy, realize that there is at least that.