Sleeping on Jupiter
BY ANURADHA ROY, MACLEHOSE PRESS , £16.99
Winning a major literary award can still transform an author’s life, but longlists and shortlists are mainly of value to readers. Although the reader who limited himself to reading Man Booker Prize-winners would come away with a curious sense of the literary landscape, over the years the shortlist – and, since its advent in 2001, the longlist – has provided a reasonable sampling of Britain and the Commonwealth’s most significant authors. Since the prize opened itself up to American authors in 2013, it now has a larger ambition, attempting to reward the best novel in English published anywhere.
Among the novels longlisted this year is Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy. As with the better-known and more widely tipped A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, the novel is about child abuse, and, as such, offers a traumatic read.
The abuse in this novel is perpetuated by an Indian monk named Guruji, and the novel alternates between a first person account narrated by an abused girl named Nomi and a third-person description of a group trip made by three older women to the town of Jarmuli, where the assaults took place.
Roy writes that her novel is based on “the legal and investigative history” of “countless horrific cases of child abuse and sexual violence in India”. Tackling this sort of material is tricky, and Roy makes the structural decision to reveal this early on, surrounding it with a curious mix of travelogue and “old biddy” banter that cannot but feel inconsequential. It must have been a hard book to write, but it’s equally hard to read.
At the longlist stage, books can appear even if only one judge likes them. Sleeping on Jupiter has many weaknesses – the ever-changing perspectives makes it hard to care about the characters; the occasionally clichéd imagery feels over-familiar – but it is singular and powerful. It reads like a very old-fashioned literary novel, but it has a hand-grenade of horror at its centre. And it is this that ensures its tremendous impact.