The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Title: The Artist of Disappearance
Author: Anita Desai
Genre: Literary fiction, multicultural fiction, novella
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011
Source: NetGalley
Read for: Review, South Asian Challenge

In this book of three novellas set in India, Anita Desai explores the lives of three different people who aren't content with their lives. Because this is really three stories in one, I will summarize each story and then give it a mini-review, then give you my thoughts as a whole at the end.

The Museum of Final Journeys - In this story, a young lawyer, dissatisfied with his rural, boring area, is approached by the caretaker of a house, who wishes to show him the mysterious museum within and beg him for a way to save the museum, because they can't afford to maintain it and the precious artifacts are going to ruin.

I found this to be an interesting story, beautifully rendered. I was intrigued by what could be in the museum, why the son who sent all of the artifacts chose to send them, what the young lawyer would do. I was slightly disappointed by the ending, although I suppose it was realistic and illustrated the frustration the lawyer felt. I also felt considerable annoyance towards the lawyer, as he would one moment seem to be excited and enthused by the museum and the next moment bored with it. He seemed to me to be a selfish character driven by his own whims and concerned only with what he wanted.

Translator Translated - In this second novella, the awkward, lonely Prema runs into Tara, a girl she idolized in school, at a function for alumni. Tara has become the head of a prestigious publishing house, and Prema convinces her to let her translate a favorite book in an obscure language to English. In the process, Prema learns about her hopes and desires and whether she is strong enough to fight for them.

Of all the stories in The Artist of Disappearance, I certainly related to this one the most. I felt a kinship to Prema, plain and often ignored, yet transformed by her love of literature and her desire to bring it to the world. I loved the way having a passion allowed her to truly live without fear, and was saddened by the way a lack of encouragement and courage stunted that passionate living until she retreated back into who she was before. I think this story belongs to so many people. I particularly loved the emphasis on literature and writing, because those are my passions.

The Artist of Disappearance - A lonely child, Ravi fills his life with the outdoors, reveling in the wild world of animals, mountains, and plants. However, as tragedy strikes his life again and again, he becomes a recluse, avoiding all human contact and living outside. He is able to create a world of beauty despite his isolation, but when a group making a documentary seeks him out to film the product of his creativity, Ravi feels as if his world is threatened.

I felt lukewarm toward this story. While the writing was beautiful and the plot was well-crafted, I just didn't feel any stirrings of emotion, any interest in what would happen to Ravi. I felt sorry for him, but at the same time I felt as if he was isolated within the story. Because he cared only for nature and the outside world, and not for any person, it was hard for me to care about him. He seemed to lack humanity to him.

This is my first Desai, and I was awed by her lovely writing. Whether or not the novella held any emotional connection for me, I had a hard time peeling my eyes away from her perfect and clear sentences.
When he looked up from it he found the woolly dusk had knitted him into the evening scene, inextricably.
Tell me that isn't beautiful. In addition to beautiful language, Desai also wove together multiple themes in her stories that unobtrusively came together to a cohesive and meaningful whole. The stories are understated, with endings that at times seem anti-climactic, but speak to the human condition. However, occasionally the stories feel flat for me because of their subtlety. I needed something more to draw me into the lives of the characters and to care about the outcomes of their lives. At times, Desai seemed only to be illuminating isolated scenes instead of telling a complete story with a definitive ending. While stylistically stories like this are not always my preference, overall the stories were beautiful and complex, despite their short length. If you love literary fiction and meanings that must be teased out of stories, this collection won't disappoint.

3.5 stars

Warnings: None


  1. I often feel this way about short stories/novellas - I feel like I need more to really and truly care about the characters. I will, of course, be reading this collection, I'm curious to see if I have a similar reaction! Thanks for the review!

  2. It was my first Anita Desai; I need to read another!


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