In Mukherjee’s hands, familiar fare is elevated by his empathy for the poor and the journalistic efforts he undertakes to understand them. One may even argue that Mukherjee writes about the rich only in order to write about the poor ... Mukherjee is skilled at writing about violence — against animals, gay men, elderly mothers, young wives. When his characters commit physical abuse they aren’t showing off their strength as much as they are lamenting their weaknesses. These scenes demonstrate a powerful restraint. If Mukherjee tested his readers with overwriting earlier novels, here he rewards them for their perseverance, producing his best work yet ... This bleak and entirely justified vision of modern India is what binds together Mukherjee’s stories and indeed his oeuvre. In an arid landscape so inimical to the hopes and dreams of the majority, even those who fight to improve their lives will fail.
While the reader aches for the sections to finally come together, for some kind of unity or catharsis, each section — save for a few instances of the protagonist from one section mentioned in another — stands alone, its own silo, an illustration of the isolation endured by almost all the characters ... many of the sections are sprinkled with otherworldly moments and spectral figures, so that these narratives read almost like ghost stories, while others are rooted firmly in the achingly realistic, unequal, and unjust soil of modern day India. There are stories of casual but unimaginable cruelty between mistress and servant, human and animal, political activists and their victims. A tourism brochure for India, this novel is not ... Accustomed as we are to reading novels that follow a standard narrative arc, some readers may find it frustrating to read a book that labels itself a novel but lacks, as Mukherjee puts it, the 'connective tissue' that ties disparate sections together.
Repeated words, pronouns not clearly referring to one character or another, flabbily padded phrases, irritating tics of style, eruptions of verbosity: there is so much distractingly bad writing in the first section of Neel Mukherjee’s new novel, it’s difficult to concentrate on what he is actually saying ... But anyone tempted to abandon the book at this point should persevere. Although later pages are still liable to congestion and carelessness, they are much better written. They’re also ambitiously and intelligently engaged with important themes – several of which are treated explicitly (deracination, the inequalities of Indian society), and one of which emerges more subtly, through clever and well-handled plotting ... This linked structure emphasises the value of life as life, regardless of wealth and status and circumstance. But it also conveys a sense of inter-relatedness that allows Mukherjee to say something about how families and communities work in general, and about how Indian society functions in particular ... At a time when the manifold dramas of migration are centre stage, we often hear writers making the sound of lamentation. The sound of grief is audible everywhere in A Sense of Freedom, but it never drowns out the voices insisting on their right to thrive. One of the most dynamic aspects of Mukherjee’s flawed but vital novel is that even while facing up to unhappiness it continues to show an affirming flame.
It's a brutal novel that gets darker and darker, and it's as breathtakingly beautiful as it is bleak … Mukherjee tackles some notoriously difficult themes perfectly: The characters in A State of Freedom all want better lives, and — to say the least — they're seldom rewarded. It's not exactly a novel that warns readers against striving; rather, it's one that urges us to be careful what we wish for, and to always be prepared for disappointment. Mukherjee also brilliantly details the brutality inherent in the class system, and the violence and despair that are its inevitable results … A State of Freedom is a marvel of a book, shocking and beautiful.
The book is in part an artful homage to one of V. S. Naipaul’s most surprising works, In a Free State. Without announcing his experimental intent too loudly, Mukherjee rips the meat of the novel (imagery, incident, social insight, feeling, mood) from the bones (narrative and character development in the usual sense) and feeds his readers only the richest pieces … The book is divided into five stylistically disparate parts—ranging from an urbane first person to omniscient narration to hurtling stream of consciousness—that look in on tangentially connected lives … From its opening pages, Mukherjee’s narrative has an eerie, haunted quality. The most comfortable lives here are lived surrounded by disquieting, spectral presences. It’s an unaccustomed form of realism.
Mukherjee tracks five characters as they migrate back and forth across the country, their stories gradually braiding together in an assured, beautiful prose. His India is a lush kaleidoscope, but one with sharp edges, mysterious shadows, vanishing crowds — a touch of surrealism pervades A State of Freedom, as in a De Chirico painting … Few writers come at the intersection of class and politics with his subtlety and compassion … Mukherjee’s accomplishment: a ravishing prose style, a lavish mural of an India that is sinister and sublime, characters that sing to us the epic of their cobbled-together country.
Mukherjee has rightly protested in an interview that Indian novelists, unlike their white Anglo-American counterparts, are always talked about in terms of how they depict India and rarely praised for experiments in prose or structure. But there is no doubt that A State of Freedom, for all its modest pushing against conventional boundaries of the novel, is a scathing portrait of India ... Mukherjee is at his best when examining the curiosity and cluelessness that characterize his own class ... While the mood darkens over the novel’s latter half, as details of poverty’s brutality accumulate, there is an overwriting that glazes each of the chapters and makes them ultimately difficult to distinguish ... The odd thing about this bleak novel is that, in attempting to depict a nation seething with movement, the portrait is finally one of stasis. People are on the move, but their lives and minds are circumscribed by class and caste, poverty and death ... A State of Freedom arrives seventy years after Indian independence and demonstrates the country’s manifest failure, but with more hopelessness than even Naipaul musters.
The narration is deceptively simple, transporting the reader to unexpected and wondrous places … Mukherjee plays with fictional form. His chapters vary in length from eight to nearly 100 pages with seemingly discrete stories and characters. As the novel progresses the reader makes subtle connections — a common character, a shared sensibility, a sequence of morals — and the book coheres in places as if by alchemy … The barriers between classes in India at first appear rigid and impenetrable, but Mukherjee finds commonality by thoroughly inhabiting their lives … Beyond the verbal flourishes, these stories have a redemptive quality.
Styles and registers ebb and flow. The opener is written in realist vein, though there is a feverish, dream-like quality … The tonal variety and architectural arrangement aren’t just there for aesthetic effect. A State of Freedom deliberately forces us to make connections, and to notice when there are none, when any sense of unity is nothing but a chimera. This, more broadly, is how the novel haunts us … The result is a profoundly intelligent and empathetic novel of privilege and poverty, advancement and entrapment.
Mukherjee’s formal experiment leads to something not so far from the collections of linked stories we’ve seen recently from Elizabeth Strout (Anything Is Possible) and Joan Silber (Improvement). It is a form uniquely suited to depicting the operation of fate and coincidence, and to showing relationships and characters from a variety of angles. Mukherjee’s version is unsparing in revealing just how far from free we are.
A State of Freedom requires those of us who live comfortably to imagine a world in which almost no one ever does, a world in which the novel’s very title seems like a bad joke. Indeed, the Londoner who narrates the book’s second part makes just such an effort, in effect modeling what Mukherjee asks of his readers. This would suggest that this novel carries a more obvious ethical burden than anything Naipaul might allow himself, and it’s correspondingly less concerned with awakening a sense of wonder, with providing what the Trinidadian master himself described as a 'cause for yearning.' A book that begins in homage remains then a bit narrow when set against its model. But it’s a mark of Neel Mukherjee’s range and force and ambition that any lesser comparison would seem an injustice.
Neel Mukherjee’s third novel of five linked narratives, A State of Freedom, begins with a realistic story told not so realistically. Thematically, it does not remain within the bounds of the premise on which it is originally predicated: the clash of the cosmopolitan sensibility acquired in the West with the ways of modernizing India … Mukherjee’s achievement is in sustaining his characters, adrift in realms of stark disparity, in a style that is buoyant and effervescent. He is not daunted by the dereliction of his landscape … Mukherjee calls upon one corroded nation’s capacity for introspection, to cast a few visceral glances at the millions of lives battered daily.
Mr Mukherjee has a spare writing style, and likes to use simple words and straightforward sentences. (An experiment in free-flowing, unpunctuated prose in the final, shortest story does not work.) He is too subtle to note these contrasts explicitly. Rather he does what good novelists should, which is to hold up a mirror to society and remind people that what passes for normal is often barbaric. His quiet observation is effective—and damning.
In his third novel, he pushes his talents to new heights ... A State of Freedom is a complex, groundbreaking novel that blends mythic pathos with unflinching social realism. Mukherjee's India is a place beset by poverty, corruption, exploitation and gross inequity, but a place, nonetheless, in which the human spirit survives.
The London-based Mukherjee surprises once again with the form of his storytelling while confirming anew the depth of his empathy. His characters’ life journeys are often painful while his descriptions of their circumstances are unsentimental, vivid, unsparing. Above all there is compassion here, alongside a focus that depicts gross inequities with a grim tenderness. A calm, compelling, unshrinking portrait of humanity in transition; both disturbing and dazzling.
...brutally honest and haunting ... Seen against a pitiless landscape of primitive villages and hellish urban slums, and the extremes of scorching heat and billowing monsoon rain, this is a compassionate, deeply felt tribute to India’s forgotten people who strive to triumph over subjugation. With its mixture of prose styles and narrative voices, Mukherjee’s novel is a literary achievement.