BookBrowse Reviews Two Lives by Vikram Seth

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Two Lives

by Vikram Seth

Two Lives by Vikram Seth X
Two Lives by Vikram Seth
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2005, 512 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2006, 544 pages

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A heartrending new book -- the story of a marriage and the story of two lives -- from the author of the international bestselling novel A Suitable Boy

From the book jacket: Shanti Behari Seth was born at the turn of the twentieth century; he died two years before its close. He was brought up in India and was sent by his family in the 1930s to Berlin -- though he could not speak a word of German -- to study medicine and dentistry. It was here, before he migrated to Britain, that Shanti's path first crossed that of his future wife.

Helga Gerda Caro, known to everyone as "Henny" was also born in 1908, in Berlin, to a Jewish family -- cultured, patriotic, and intensely German. When the family decided to take Shanti as a lodger, Henny's first reaction was, "Don't take the black man!" But a friendship flowered, and when Henny fled Hitler's Germany for England just one month before war broke out, she was met at Victoria Station by the only person in the country she knew: Shanti.

Vikram Seth has woven together the astonishing story of his great-aunt and uncle. The result is an extraordinary tapestry of India, the Third Reich and the Second World War, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, postwar Germany and 1970s Britain.

Two Lives is both a history of a violent century seen through the eyes of two survivors and an intimate portrait of their friendship, marriage, and abiding yet complex love. Part biography, part memoir, part meditation on our times, this is the true tale of two remarkable lives -- a masterful telling from one of our greatest living writers.

Comment: Even if the reviews had not been as glowing as they are I would have been tempted to recommend Two Lives simply for the gratitude I feel to Vikram Seth for introducing me to the wonderful world of Indian authors.  When my father (who is normally found nose deep in Trollope or histories of World War II) gave me a copy back in 1993 I must admit I was surprised that he would have read, let alone enjoyed, a story of extended families set in 1950s India - but the essence of a true classic is that it transcends the borders of genre and can be appreciated even by those who might not normally read that 'type' of book.  Needless to say, if you haven't already read A Suitable Boy, I do encourage you to do so in all its 1,470 page glory!

But now back to the book in hand - Two Lives.  Publishers Weekly and Kirkus both give it starred reviews, the Denver Post says, 'Seth turns biography into powerful literature, distilling the universal human emotions of passion, grief and the will to survive;" and the Seattle Times describes it as "[A] beautiful, loving, clear-eyed book... Translucent, telling prose."  You can read a dozen or so more reviews at BookBrowse - the only minor criticisms from a couple of critics are that one feels he spends too long on his great-aunt's letters and another comments that a 'ten-page digression' into German culture and history' mar an otherwise 'immensely moving narrative'.

This review is from the January 18, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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