Summary and book reviews of A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

A State of Freedom

by Neel Mukherjee

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee X
A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2018, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2019, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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About this Book

Book Summary

What happens when one attempts to exchange the life one is given for something better? Can we transform the possibilities we are born into?

In this stunning novel, prize-winning author Neel Mukherjee wrests open the central, defining events of our century: displacement and migration. Five characters, in very different circumstances - from a domestic cook in Mumbai, to a vagrant and his dancing bear, to a girl who escapes terror in her home village for a new life in the city - find out the meanings of dislocation and the desire for more.

Set in contemporary India and moving between the reality of this world and the shadow of another, this novel of multiple narratives - formally daring, fierce, but full of pity - delivers a devastating and haunting exploration of the unquenchable human urge to strive for a different life.

While trying to check the bill before settling – an old habit, inculcated by his father, of giving any bill the once-over to see that he had not been overcharged – he realised that he had lost the ability to perform the simple function of adding up the individual items and the tax that together made up the grand total. Standing at the reception desk, he tried again and again. Then he took out his wallet and tried to count the rupee and US dollar notes nestled inside; he failed. Something as fundamental to intelligence as counting was eluding him. In the peripheries of his vision he could see a small crowd gathering to look at him; discreetly, nonchalantly, they thought. The news had spread. It was then that he broke down and wept for his son.

He had hesitated about taking the boy to Fatehpur Sikri right after their lunchtime tour of the Taj Mahal; two major Mughal monuments in one afternoon could be considered excessive. But, he reasoned, it was less than an hour's drive and...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. One of the epigraphs for this novel comes from V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River: "After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities." How does Mukherjee's novel confirm this idea?
  2. Why do you think Mukherjee begins the novel with the story of an Indian father and his six-year-old American-born son - a relationship that shines a light on what it means to be "a tourist in one's own country"? Has the father lost a part of himself - the Indian part - by living in another country? Do you think this is why, in the opening paragraph of the novel, he "[breaks] down and [weeps] for his son"?
  3. Section I has a nightmarish quality. What accounts for this?
  4. What was your perception of the narrator in Section...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Across the book's five disparate sections, there is no obvious grand narrative arc, no plot to speak of, no holistic character development or neat resolutions. Instead the reader is left with a glorious, chaotic babel of voices and lives and hopes and suffering of migrants pursuing freedom and economic betterment within the confines of their native country of India. For those willing to play its game, A State of Freedom will prove to be a dazzling and challenging contemplation on beauty and anguish in India...continued

Full Review (1017 words).

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(Reviewed by Dean Muscat).

Media Reviews

The Wall Street Journal
Exquisitely written, cleverly structured, powerfully resonant to the very last line. . . . A profoundly intelligent and empathetic novel of privilege and poverty, advancement and entrapment.

Boston Globe
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.

Harpers
Without announcing his experimental intent too loudly, Mukherjee rips the meat of the novel (imagery, incident, social insight, feeling, mood) from the bones (narrative and character development in the usual sense) and feeds his readers only the richest pieces. . . . Mukherjee looks straight at the ugliest parts of an unequal society and uses what he finds to construct something beautiful.

NPR
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.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. With its mixture of prose styles and narrative voices, Mukherjee's novel is a literary achievement.

Library Journal
Starred Review. 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.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. A calm, compelling, unshrinking portrait of humanity in transition; both disturbing and dazzling.

Author Blurb Sarah Waters
An extraordinary achievement. Subtle and multilayered, it's a study of the brutality of social divisions, written with tremendous tenderness; a work that insists on the dignity of figures obliged to lead undignified lives. A powerful, troubling novel. The moment I finished it, I began it again.

Author Blurb Hanya Yanagihara
Neel Mukherjee's breathtaking A State of Freedom is that rarest, most wonderful of things: a book both literarily dextrous, full of unforgettable scenes, images, language, and characters, as well as a furious, unsparing, clear-eyed study of how a society's gross inequities of money and power demean and deform the human condition. The most astonishing and brilliant novel I have read in a long, long time.

Author Blurb Edmund White
This is a great hymn to poor, scabby humanity - a devastating portrait of poverty and the inhumanity of the rich to the poor. A masterpiece.

Author Blurb A. M. Homes
Neel Mukherjee's A State of Freedom is more than a novel - it is an immersive experience. He writes like a painter, his language is his palette, bringing to life the variation of India's cities and towns in a dense, multilayered world.

Author Blurb Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
A State of Freedom is formally audacious, vividly observed, and deeply imagined. Unsentimental yet full of heart, grimly real yet mysteriously dreamlike, with characters who continue to live their complicated lives long after you've turned the last page. Just a beautiful, beautiful piece of work.

Author Blurb Rose Tremain
An extraordinary, compassionate, complex, hard-hitting wonder of a book. It is in a class of its own.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Dancing Bears

The third section of Neel Mukherjee's A State of Freedom follows Lakshman, a young father taking care of two families in the slums of India. When one day Lakshman stumbles upon a stray bear cub wandering about the streets, he sees the animal as his golden ticket to earning a fortune by starting a dancing bear routine.

Dancing bears were a popular animal attraction throughout Europe and Asia during the Middle Ages up until the nineteenth century. The act was also commonplace in various countries of the Indian subcontinent for centuries, and until fairly recently plenty of bear handlers made a living solely from this act.

The process of training a dancing bear usually began while the animal was still a cub. These cubs were typically ...

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