Very rarely have I come across a story that has captured my attention as intensely as Anuk Arudpragasam’s “A Passage North.” This novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is both a love letter to Sri Lanka, the author’s place of origin, as well as a testament to the terrors of war and the tenacity of the human condition.
To be transparent, there isn’t much that happens within the confines of this book, at least not in a traditional sense. It lacks the satisfaction of a thrilling adventure full of unexpected twists and turns nor does it have a precise final ending. In fact, the story itself is quite simple. Our protagonist, Krishan, receives an unexpected call alerting him that his grandmother’s caretaker, Rani, was found dead at the bottom of a well while visiting her home in northern Sri Lanka. This call comes just as Krishan is processing a recent email from a past lover, Anjum. These two points of communication serve to frame the rest of the story and Krishan’s journey to the northern parts of Sri Lanka to attend Rani’s funeral.
Though the plot is fairly bare, Arudpragasam more than makes up for the lack of action through his prose. This book reads like the transcription of another person’s thoughts: their stream of consciousness vulnerably written on paper, their innermost thoughts and habits intimately exposed. The story seamlessly transitions from memories of faraway moments back into the current, snapping in and out in the same sudden way that you yourself would if you were zoned out in a daydream. Krishan alternates between processing the death of a woman who was almost family to him, his personhood as a Tamil man in a country recovering from war and a breakup typical of any twenty-something. These complex facets of his identity are seamlessly woven into the story, bringing the reader into his mind, and shining a light into the larger consciousness of post-war Sri Lanka.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this novel is how Arudpragasam deals with time. Arudpragasam frames the present as something that his characters are simultaneously seeking to escape and exist perpetually within. Appamma, Krishan’s grandmother who lives with him and his mother, is aging and having a hard time dealing with the degradation of her body and mind. Before Rani was hired to help her, Krishan tells us that Appamma looked forward to her trips to visit her brother in London, so much so that she would plan months in advance. Rani, who lost both of her sons in the aftermath of the war, is unable to cope with her memories from the war for the duration of her life. Throughout the story, Krishan fixates on his memories with Anjum. He mentions that their time spent together was often the only time that he felt truly present. This is juxtaposed with Anjum herself, a woman dedicated to the political causes she is passionate about. Krishan reflects that Anjum was not truly able to reciprocate his love because her thoughts and priorities lie with her activism.
Though these characters and their struggles take place in an unfamiliar setting for some, the true achievement of this novel is that the characters’ battles with the present are distinctly relatable. This story feels so intimate and personal, partially because of the dimensional and dynamic characters, but also because Arudpragasam possesses an immense talent for writing about the most mundane and trivial moments in the most beautiful of ways. There is a multiple-page section solely dedicated to the nuances of human eye contact and the ways in which it can be used to communicate. When describing Rani’s dead body at the funeral, rather than just saying what it looked like, Arudpragasam goes beyond general description and mentions all of her different facets in the form of the hair she has on her corpse. These potentially dry parts of the novel shine through as some of the most memorable passages, working together to create a novel that illuminates the human condition.
This book perfectly braids together memory and fiction; the author’s poignant and detailed writing stands out from start to finish. What could have been too simple a story in the hands of another writer is beautifully developed in the hands of Arudpragasam.
“A Passage North” is much more than the story of a journey north, and its gripping yet delicate storytelling makes it a strong contender to win the Booker Prize.
Daily Arts Contributor Isabella Kassa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.