Latitudes of Longing, by Shubhangi Swarup

One World, 2020

Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup

I picked up this book on a whim at ALA (I was drawn to the cover and the title) and had no idea of the treat I was in for. The first third of the novel follows Girija Prasad and Chanda Devi: a newly married couple set up by their parents based on their compatible but very different interests, intelligences, and oddities. This section of the novel is flawless. The couple lives on a small and beautiful tropical island in the Bay of Bengal and you get to know them as they get to know each other: you will grow with them, learn with them, and eventually feel devastating loss and pain with them. And while their story is followed up by stories of new characters in new places, the lives of each character you meet is somehow tied to Girija and Chanda.

This first section is the longest and best of the novel. Of the following sections, there were some I loved and some I found just okay, but I found the conclusion to be entirely worth it. At the heart of Latitudes of Longing is a deep awareness of the relationship between humans and nature as well as a sense of humility toward and acceptance of natural forces. The natural thread that connects each character in Latitudes of Longing is each person’s proximity to a turbulent fault line that spans the Indian Plate, which takes the reader from the rural Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal to Kathmandu, Nepal to the mountains of Pakistan. Human history and geology are portrayed as inseparable. In a fascinating interview for “The Hindu,” Swarup says: “A tectonic fault line is the narrative thread of my novel, and when you shift your gaze this way, a very different story emerges. One where natural history is the framework to our lives, not political borders or artificial plots.” And in response to questions of the prominence of the environment in her novel: “We don’t need manic fluctuations in temperature to include rainforests and blue whales in our national discussions, novels or films. We just need humility.”

For fans of magical realism, Latitudes of Longing is magical realism informed by the religions and spiritualities of the Indian subcontinent. But for an ambitious literary novel, it is also grounded in a simultaneously gritty and beautiful reality. The stories are devastatingly human and universal. The title, Latitudes of Longing, is apt. You will feel the longing of the characters as well as a longing for life itself. I came out of this novel feeling bigger than I did before, in the sense that I suddenly encompassed knowledge of more places, more cultures, and more beliefs than I had previously. This beautifully-written epic novel is one that will stick with me for a long time to come.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org | The Hindu .com interview

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