"The most astonishing and brilliant novel I have read in a long, long time."
"Many of the sections are sprinkled with otherworldly moments and spectral figures, so that these narratives read almost like ghost stories, while others are rooted firmly in the achingly realistic, unequal, and unjust soil of modern day India."
"Neel Mukherjee has a genius for storytelling.… [He’s] a writer of abundant gifts."
"Mukherjee looks straight at the ugliest parts of an unequal society and uses what he finds to construct something beautiful."
"A writer who can envelop you in the worlds he creates, and whose piercing eye for detail can send you reeling.… [Mukherjee] seeds his tales with images of unexpected beauty… an extraordinary account of the tenacious will to survive."
"[Mukherjee’s] writing is simply gorgeous.… A State of Freedom is a marvel of a book, shocking and beautiful, and it proves that Mukherjee is one of the most original and talented authors working today."
"Experimental.… The characters are connected less by the slender narrative thread than by their acute awareness of inequity."
"His best work yet.… This bleak and entirely justified vision of modern India is what binds together Mukherjee’s stories and indeed his oeuvre."
"Uniquely suited to depicting the operation of fate and coincidence, and to showing relationships and characters from a variety of angles.… Unsparing."
Freedom, as defined by the characters in Mukherjee’s brutally honest and haunting latest novel (after The Lives of Others), is a relative state. Most of them are striving to transcend lives of grinding poverty and degradation in contemporary India, where, though the “untouchable” designation has been abolished, the vicious caste system still victimizes village dwellers and domestic workers. Lakshman has abandoned his family and his dismally poor village to travel with a dancing bear (the bear “dances” when a rope is jerked painfully through his nose), only to realize that he has lost everything and that the bear is his only friend. Renu is a domestic cook in Bombay, working herself to the bone and juggling many jobs in order to pay for her nephew’s education. Milly is forced to rely on a man she does not know in order to escape slavelike servitude to her employers: “She had been untethered, set free, when all she wanted was the safety and security of not being alone.” Soni, who seeks freedom through activism with the Communist Party, discovers she is a prisoner of doctrinal subjugation. An unnamed father comes home to India from America to show his young son his heritage only to tragically realize that he can’t escape the ancient violence that lies simmering under the surface. Seen against a pitiless landscape of primitive villages and hellish urban slums, and the extremes of scorching heat and billowing monsoon rain, this is a compassionate, deeply felt tribute to India’s forgotten people who strive to triumph over subjugation. With its mixture of prose styles and narrative voices, Mukherjee’s novel is a literary achievement. (Jan.)
The five "narrative parts" of this work, designated only with Roman numerals, comprise five styles: short story; first-person, faux memoir; folktale of sorts; ten-parts-plus-epilog novella; and no-punctuation vignette. The connections require attention, with results well worth the reader's intriguing participation. An Indian American professor's tragedy-ensuing visit with his six-year-old son to iconic Indian landmarks amid hordes of destitute locals confirms "the plush West had made him skinless like a good, sheltered first-world liberal." A London-based writer visits his parents in Mumbai and develops a relationship with the family's cook that challenges employer/employee boundaries. A bear cub is brutally trained to perform by his desperate owner. Two childhood village friends experience diverging adulthoods. A disjointed voice confronts impending death. Man Booker Prize short-listed Mukherjee (for The Lives of Others) gathers a cast of untethered characters to present urgent, even beseeching, testimony on how the titular "state of freedom" is too often more impossible dream than achievable reality. A Q&A with Hanya Yanagihara reveals Mukherjee's intent that Freedom be "an homage, a conversation" with V.S. Naipaul's In a Free State; familiarity with that work is unnecessary to be awed. VERDICT Libraries with internationally savvy audiences should prepare for substantial demand. [See Prepub Alert, 7/31/17.]—Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC
Five diverse lives in India are traced and linked, exposing the aching gulfs in experience and opportunity that exist in a complex nation.Particle physicists, Maoist terrorists, punitive employers, servants, and émigrés all have roles in Mukherjee's (The Lives of Others, 2014, etc.) third novel, which is composed of interwoven short fictions moving between seething cities and rural life at its most impoverished. Themes of money, work, politics, survival, and women's roles connect the characters. In Bombay, an elderly couple with a new cook welcomes home their liberal son, now living overseas, on his annual visit. His keen interest in food and research for a cookbook lead to awkward efforts to befriend the cook, resulting in a visit to her family's home, a trip seamed with shame, pity, and wonder. Elsewhere, a poor villager, crushed under the burden of trying to provide not only for his own family, but his brother's, too—the brother has gone to find work on construction sites in the cities—is relieved, perhaps, by the discovery of a bear cub. Having trained the bear to "dance"—an unbearably cruel process—man and animal begin a life together on the road and a kind of parallel existence, begging for food and money, debased and suffering. The fate of the absent brother is glimpsed in the sinister, haunting opening of the book and confirmed in its final section. The London-based Mukherjee surprises once again with the form of his storytelling while confirming anew the depth of his empathy. His characters' life journeys are often painful while his descriptions of their circumstances are unsentimental, vivid, unsparing. Above all there is compassion here, alongside a focus that depicts gross inequities with a grim tenderness.A calm, compelling, unshrinking portrait of humanity in transition; both disturbing and dazzling.