Review: ‘The Earthspinner,’ by Anuradha Roy



“What just happened?” I found myself asking aloud upon coming to the end of “The Earthspinner,” Anuradha Roy’s fifth novel. For several days after reading, I held on to a pinching disappointment — the novel closes without resolve, and I found myself returning to the book, wondering why Roy had built a world of such rich possibilities just to leave so many unrealized. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of what would become a complicated journey with the novel, leading me to a deep gratitude for this work.

“The Earthspinner” tells the story of three shattered lives: Elango, a Hindu rickshaw driver and ceramist whose love of Zohra, a Muslim woman, leads him to construct a sculpture that gets them both exiled; Sara, his passenger-turned-apprentice, who bears witness to the illicit romance and helps him create the blasphemous work; and Chinna, a beloved lost dog who finds a new home with Elango and Zohra, only to have it destroyed when they are banished.

Roy employs different strategies for each perspective — Elango’s is told in the third person, Sara’s in the first and Chinna’s through letters from his original owner, though the last pages are Chinna’s own dog thoughts, which readers who are squeamish with animal narration might find off -putting. (I am a reader who spends a lot of time trying to figure out how her cat feels about her and found this particular passage very moving.)

A decade later, we find each of these characters transformed — Elango is now an artist of some renown, Sara is studying abroad in England and Chinna roams free as “The Grand Old Dog of Kummarapet” — but their heartbreak remains an open wound that begs for healing. Sara and Elango eventually meet again by chance in England and confront their past, a reckoning one might assume would unearth an enormous swell of emotion. Instead, what we find is two adults nearer in age than Elango’s earlier role of caretaker and mentor led us to believe, talking as equals for the first time. Their interactions do not unfurl easily, nor do they guide Sara and Elango toward a clean recovery from their shared history. Rather, they leave us with the feeling that very little of what is lost can ever be understood, let alone reclaimed.

Subtlety is a trademark for Roy, whose novels have been praised and prized for their understated elegance. She’s particularly adept at using past trauma and geographic displacement to illuminate her characters’ present (think of the widow relocating to escape her grief in “The Folded Earth” or the filmmaker returning to the site of her childhood sexual abuse in “Sleeping on Jupiter” ).

While a tale of star-crossed lovers is hardly unique, the specificities here — a ceramist and a calligrapher in 1970s India — feel fresh, and Roy’s ability to channel her characters’ inner lives is as thrilling as ever. At the same time, gluttons for plot, especially those who appreciate stakes high enough to raise pulses, might find themselves in the same predicament I was, unsure of why Roy set up this perfect confrontation and played it out so quietly.

And this, I will admit, is what initially rankled me. What does it mean when a novel’s resolve refuses to make sense of the trauma at its center? When a book’s conflict feels unmet by its conclusion? I have been surprised to find my dissatisfaction bending me back toward the book, prompting me to reconsider the nature of exile, of aging, of shared trauma, of what we carry into our present day from a past that did not protect us.

In this way, the novel feels like waking from a long, unsettling, unshakable dream. Yes, we understand it’s just a dream, but we also can’t help feeling the depth of a dream’s persuasion, the way certain truths might later clamber from the subconscious to the surface, changing us. Which is all to say, my love for “The Earthspinner” did not come in a neat package, but rather from the way it elicits a kind of confusion that turns into preoccupation; how it requires one to hold in one’s mind the story’s many complicated pieces, even after the novel reaches its end; the way it ignites an obsessive wondering that must run its course before a dreamer can wake, body facing an unforeseen direction, ready to take on a different kind of work.

Mira Jacob is the author and illustrator of the graphic memoir “Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations” and the novel “The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing.”

THE EARTHSPINNER, by Anuradha Roy | 213 pp. | HarperVia | $25.99

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