The Living Days is never a predictable novel, indeed it is never less than perplexing and unsettling. What rescues it from being merely preposterous is, against expectation, the move from the apparently naturalistic style of the opening chapters to the sections in which free rein is given to the possibility that the living days are lived in a state between life and death ... This is not a novel which offers any reassurance. We never enter a settled space of familiarity. Even within the internal logic of the novel, the nature of what we are reading becomes unstable making it both an exciting and an effortful read ... It is easy to forget, because of its setting and because of the very convincing representation of London life that we are presented with in this novel, that Ananda Devi is from Mauritius and that the book was written in French. It is a tribute to the translator, Jeffrey Zuckerman, that the language of the book flows in an unhindered style even while the half-formed lives of the characters in this intriguing, highly unusual novel confound all assumptions.
The abuse scenario recounted in The Living Days prompts a meditation on urban inequality, in which the politics of race and class loom large ... fetishistic language underlines the essentially neocolonial nature of [the] relationship: in its sordid and exploitative dynamic, it symbolically evokes the history of social relations between white and black, between metropole and empire – the legacy of which, Devi suggests, persists in the violence of 21st-century city life ... Devi’s talents were impressively showcased in Eve Out of Her Ruins, which explored everyday violence and misogyny in the slum districts of the Mauritian capital, Port-Louis, with a smart blend of lyricism and sociological insight. The Living Days is a somewhat disappointing follow-up, comparatively lacking in subtlety and trading rather too heavily on shock value. There is a conspicuous strain of Victorian paternalism in Devi’s ruminations on the nexus between poverty and violence, which occasionally lapse from well-meaning solicitude into crass condescension ... tonally awkward moments diminish the novel’s moral force, as does the abundance of cliches in Devi’s prose: some allowance must be made for the ambiguities of translation, but the surfeit of corny phrasees...is cloying. While Mary’s loneliness is rendered with a certain degree of conviction...the character of Cub is two-dimensional...
Devi’s visceral and chilling novel...is a profound portrait of two people living on London’s margins ... Devi’s telling of their relationship is brutal and entirely believable, a gorgeous and haunting depiction of London and the real lives and memories of those unseen within it.
Devi’s language is luscious (translator Zuckerman deserves notice for turning the author’s French into fluid, exquisitely precise English), and her depiction of Mary so gentle, that the reader might be lulled into hoping that this relationship is somehow not as grotesque as it seems. Like the best narratives that use fantastic tropes, this one defies being reduced to one simple set of meanings, but it’s fair to say that the novel uses the lens of post-colonialism to test the promises of cosmopolitanism and liberalism. Devi is a native of Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean ruled by the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain before its independence in 1968. It’s not difficult to see Mary, in her frailty, as a ghost of the British Empire, drawing fresh vitality from young black newcomers to the kingdom while relegating them to the status of subhuman chattel. The genius of this story is that Devi goes beyond revealing this dynamic to explore its insidious, often invisible reach ... A gorgeously written, profoundly upsetting fairy tale of race, class, power, and desire.