Latitudes of Longing is a book that only made it to my list of books to read this year because of the Reading Women 2021 Challenge. The first task on the list is to read a book longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature which is an award presented each year to a distinguished work of fiction by an Indian author. I went digging through the lists and Latitudes of Longing was both longlisted and shortlisted in 2018, the first year of the award. Latitudes of Longing is Shubhangi Swarup’s first novel. It’s the kind of first novel that I love, it is the book of someone who really loves written language. Swarup weaves in such beautifully evocative imagery while also being tight and skillful in construction. The book rewards those who pay close attention, and the way Swarup uses language makes you want to pay attention. Swarup uses her metaphors to create the links between the four novellas that make up the narrative.
The book starts with the story of an arranged marriage between two very different people that grows into genuine love. We follow Girija Prasad, a scientist educated in the west, and his wife, Chanda Devi, a clairvoyant who speaks to the trees her husband can only study. Their journey towards love and family is the epicenter of the novel and the rest of the book flows out from it. Swarup’s prose is both the novel’s highlight and what holds it back. On the plus side, there is no sensory detail or wisp of an idea that goes unexplored. Water, time, and topography are all fleshed out. However, while this style of writing can be exhilarating in small doses, it can also lead to fatigue.
Outwardly, what connects these narratives is their geography, the earth around the characters plays the role of an active participant throughout. But the real connecting theme of the book is desire, and what separates each character from what they want. It is also a book full of ghosts, spirits, and the supernatural which can comfortably place this one in the realm of fantasy. But it also leans towards the more science fiction side of things with its in-depth understanding of plate tectonics, forestry, and biology. Swarup builds a world where creation and destruction co-exist, where hard science and magical realism can live side by side. While Latitudes of Longing starts out with great intensity, but somewhere along the way, it loses its strength – but this is still a good read.
Bingo Square: UnCannon (literary fiction from the non-western world by a woman that refuses to conform to a single genre is just the kind of thing we need to upset ‘the canon’)