There is a rule that I hold to in all of my reading that if I reach anywhere between 30 and 50% complete with a book and I am not “feeling it,” I have permission to put it down and move onto another read. A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee was a DRC provided by W.W. Norton and Company via Netgally for an honest review, and while I gave it a good faith effort, I had to set it aside.
Each section of the book is a story set in India, and it’s meant to slowly expand upon different cultures and experiences that exist in the large, diverse nation while keeping you grounded in a set of connected characters. The first section is about a man who takes his young son sightseeing, only to eventually witness him die at the hotel where they are staying? To the casual reader, the first section would be enough to go back to Barnes and Noble for a refund. I, however, pressed on to give the next section a chance.
The second exploration is much more relatable. A son has moved away to go to school and to work in London, but returns home to his well-to-do parents’ home once a year for a month. They think he doesn’t come home enough, he thinks that their treatment of the servants is inhumane and unkind, and so the generations clash as only modern and older generations can. The themes in this second section really spoke to me, and the additions of uniquely Indian issues helped me relate my experience to one with which I am not familiar, and so I learned some things! Hooray for learning!
The third part of the book is where Mukherjee completely repulsed and lost me. A baby bear is found abandoned in a small, rural, poor town in India and a man decides to keep it, break it, and teach it to dance so that he can make money by entertaining people. The descriptions of the treatment of the bear made me tear up and become very uncomfortable, and the overly academic writing made the story feel disjointed. The bear is beaten, starved, tortured, mangled, and eventually it dances but, since my Kindle informed me I had reached 40%, I could say “that’s enough!” and put it down.
It may be a literary triumph, as many reviewers have already decreed, but for a casual reader looking to travel through literature, this is not the book to pick up. It’s more of an academic journey through Indian culture, working with layered characters (one story references a character from another story while expanding on another character from yet another section) in order to show how such different pieces of the Indian puzzle are interwoven to make one nation. It’s the kind of book that a very cultured book club might read and pat each other on the back for understanding each of the complex themes and messages while drinking a very dry chardonnay. It’s definitely not a fun or easy read, and while I enjoy a challenging read, this one just wasn’t worth the effort. It’s cruel in parts, obtuse in many others, and you should probably choose a different book to spend your time with.
On to the next one!
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