Book Review: Sleeping on Jupiter

Thursday 27 August 2015 by

Sleeping on Jupiter, Anuradha Roy, Book, Reading, MacLehose Press, Man Booker 2015Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy

Published by MacLehose Press

A train stops at a railway station. A young woman jumps off. She has wild hair, sloppy clothes, a distracted air. She looks Indian, yet she is somehow not. The sudden violence of what happens next leaves the other passengers gasping.

The train terminates at Jarmuli, a temple town by the sea. Here, among pilgrims, priests and ashrams, three old women disembark only to encounter the girl once again. What is someone like her doing in this remote corner, which attracts only worshippers?

Over the next five days, the old women live out their long-planned dream of a holiday together; their temple guide finds ecstasy in forbidden love; and the girl is joined by a photographer battling his own demons.

The full force of the evil and violence beneath the serene surface of the town becomes evident when their lives overlap and collide. Unexpected connections are revealed between devotion and violence, friendship and fear, as Jarmuli is revealed as a place with a long, dark past that transforms all who encounter it.

~*~

Be prepared for a rough ride when reading Sleeping on Jupiter, because this is perhaps one of the most harrowing books I’ve read so far. It tells the story of a handful of characters as they descend on a small town called Jarmuli. But Jarmuli has a dark past, which is slowly revealed piece by piece throughout the narrative, until the wistful ending.

I’m really not quite sure what to make of this story – did I love it, did it disturb me? Is it a Man Booker winner? I really can’t tell, and that’s perhaps the crux of it. The characters whip around you, each clamouring for priority, and the switches in perspectives can be disorienting.

But equally there is a beauty to it – a rich sense of India, with smells and colours rippling from the pages. This novel feels stifled by the heat, exultant in the beauty, and frightened in the sinister shadows that loom up. It is heart-wrenching and baffling and totally absorbing (I actually missed my tube stop with this one).

Its prose is so rich you feel you ought to be left with a sickly sweet taste afterwards. It grabs you by the throat, unforgiving, and you can’t look away, no matter how vicious the tale. You are horrified by it all, but a part of it is also unsurprising. In the end, the most surprising thing is the lack of conclusion – our main protagonist, Nomi, has no closure. In fact, the full story is never revealed – perhaps so upsetting in its truth that it is better left unsaid. You know what has happened without ever being told. It’s remarkable to be lifted in to a world so totally and yet leave it feeling almost none the wiser.

The tension is as taut as a bowstring (I read it in a matter of hours, rather than days); you feel like the characters are baring their teeth at you, angry and frightened and all trying to hold you in place. But for me, the characters became secondary to the setting. It is so powerful, I found myself surprised when I looked up and I found myself in a dingy tube carriage in a rainy London, rather than standing against the furious waves crashing on a hot Indian beach. The characters approach you, rather than you approaching them, and that is startling and unnerving.

Overall, I guess, Sleeping on Jupiter is harrowing in both content and attitude. It leaves you off-kilter and bewildered, on the defensive. It packs a powerful punch.

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