The Living by Anjali Joseph (Fourth Estate, £12.99)
The award-winning writer Anjali Joseph’s third novel, The Living, comprises two stories told side by side. Its narrators are Claire, a 35-year-old single mother who works at a shoe factory in Norfolk, and Arun, an elderly sandal-maker in India. Artisanship aside, they have in common an impressive accumulation of familial baggage: an estranged mother in her case, a stagnant marriage in his. Claire recalls her “mother’s face, her mouth drawn tight then opening to spit something poisonous.” Whatever had transpired between them—there is a suggestion of domestic violence—the relationship seems irreparable. Meanwhile Arun, decrepit and on the cusp of terminal illness, evokes a poignant pathos despite his cantankerousness and marital infidelity. Splicing interior monologues and sparse quotidian humdrum, The Living is a portrait of listless perseverance, of tired, lonely people weighed down by recriminations and regrets.
There are flickers of emotional insight in this weary litany of reproaches, and Joseph’s deliberately understated narration achieves a bleak verisimilitude. But the book’s lack of dynamic thrust brings its own problems. Just as there is a fine line between satirical banality and actual dreary cliché—Claire lights a cigarette every couple of pages; she has dreams about Brad Pitt; she has a brief affair with a man, who then ignores her messages—there is a danger, too, that a vividly rendered state of jaded torpor can make for lacklustre reading. The Living is neatly crafted and sporadically arresting, but its diaristic timbre sails uncomfortably close to misery memoir territory.