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A Passage North

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After the war has ended, a man takes a long walk in Columbo, Sri Lanka, and later he takes a train to attend the funeral of his grandmother's caretaker. Along the way, he remembers other walks and other train journeys he took in India with the woman he fell in love with. Anuk Arudpragasam's novel has a deceptively simple framework from which he explores the aftermath of Sri Lanka's long war on its citizens and the life of those who leave their home countries. 

And while all that would be reason enough to make this novel a stand-out, the real reason to read A Passage North is for the writing, which is beautiful. Arudpragasam describes the places Krishan travels through and exists in so as to make the reader feel present in a specific place and time, to see things through the protagonist's eyes and to understand the people he interacts with. This is a remarkable novel and I'm glad that it has been put on the Booker shortlist.
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Thank you Netgalley and PRH for a galley of this book!

I read Arudpragasam's debut "The Story of a Brief Marriage" when it originally released and loved it so was excited to get a hold of this novel as well. Arudpragasam cements himself as one of the greatest authors alive today with this second book, which is not to say that it completely worked for me.

The fact of the matter is that Arudpragasam can write a book, the story here is at times beautiful and the writing in itself is really well done. I particularly found the portions about Rani and Krishan's grandmother to be the strongest parts of the novel as I to have grandparents struggling with the biology of aging. The bits about Krishan's relationship with Anjum a former girlfriend are less compelling to me, but I could see that working for someone else.

Where the novel loses me a bit is when things meander. You'll be in the middle of something and the story goes into a...tangent wouldn't be the right word as the side stories from Krishan's past due factor into our main storyline, but there were times where these reflections took me out of the story more than contextualized anything.

I would certainly recommend this to anyone looking to learn about different stories, but proceed with caution. This book requires your attention and patience at times, but its worth it.
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Language of loss and love suffuce the novel with poignant descriptions that cut to the bone of life. The unstated question which echoes throughout is: What is worth dying for? Is it love, is it loss, is it a belief in a political state? Krishan, the main character, may be on the verge of asking a new question: What is worth living for?

When A Passage North begins, Krishan is between places in his life, stuck with a yearning for something unknown. He is haunted by memories of his first love, Anjum, whose passion for her activism overshadowed any connection with Krishan. He has both moved on and hasn't. A bland, simple email from Anjum is enough to send his head spinning back in time to relive their moments together through the knowledge of where it would end up.

When the novel begins, Krishan is living with his ailing grandmother and his own mother back home in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After he returns from work in the evening, his grandmother tails him like a child in search of a familial connection after a long day alone. She is fading in that slow way that is its own season in life.


 
Krishan's life shifts when he receives a phone call informing him that Rani, his grandmother's former caretaker, has died suddenly after a tumble into a well in the country's northeastern corner. Rani had lived in their home with Krishan's grandmother for a couple of years; in fact, Krishan's interactions with Rani had been far less intense as he had come and gone from life's adventures. But even so, he is stilled by the fact that Rani, this woman who lived in the same room as his grandmother for all that time, is simply no more.

He wonders whether it was suicide because who dies by falling into a well? While Rani had been brought into the home for the purpose of caring for Krishan's grandmother, the relationship was truly more symbiotic. The role was as much to save Rani's life, haunted as she was by the death of two of her children during the Sri Lankan civil war.

Since I had no prior knowledge of the Sri Lankan civil war, I think it is worth a short tangent to provide the backdrop against which A Passage North is set.

The Sri Lankan civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2009, was an insurrection led from the minority population, the Tamils, in response to the treatment they faced from the Sinhalese, the dominant group which led the government. The Tamils, known as the Tamil Tigers during the war, sought to establish an independent state in the northeastern part of the country, where Rani was from.

Because the conflict ended with the insurrectionists admitting defeat, the same group retained power and did not create any sort of independent review of the conflict. As a result, there is not good data on the true cost in human life, but estimates suggest that between 40,000 and 140,000 civilians lost their lives. The Sri Lankan government has received negative attention for the tactics they used, including what would fall under the category of war crimes such as intentionally bombing citizens. For their part, the Tamil Tigers used brutal tactics, including child soliders and suicide bombers.

Author Anuk Arudpragasm was born in 1988 and moved to the United States somewhere in the late aughts, which means he grew up in a country that was in a state of a brutal civil war. I got the sense in reading this novel that it is the result of Anuk both trying to make sense of how his memories impacted individual people and to bring to light this conflict that, upon arriving in the United States to attend undergraduate and graduate programs, he must have realized was not on the radar of so many.


 
In the novel, Krishan struggles with how to square Rani's sudden death in a random accident with those killed brutally in the war and especially Rani's own two children. So, he decides to make the trek to the northeast of the country to attend Rani's funeral and meet her daughter.

Train rides through the open countryside are a wonderful time to be lost in thoughts, and that is exactly how Krishan spends his journey. It is through his memories that the reader learns more about his relationship with Anjum, Rani's background, and some heart-rendering history of the Tamil Tigers.

What Krishan finds on the other end of his journey helps him start to heal and connect himself with his own country's history and perhaps send him on his next life's journey.

Both literary, cultural, and chronological history are gently woven into the novel in a way that enrichens the story and the reader. The novel is told without any dialogue and at times was reminiscent of Proust's ruminations but in a more accessible way.

I really enjoyed this novel for its own sake, and I also appreciate the lens into Sri Lanka that I didn't know I was missing.
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“…there was  something worthy of admiration in this fierce and humble loyalty to life, in the way she preserved and nourished this life however she could, with all the resources at her disposal, even as her body was being inexorably broken down, even as the people around her ceased needing or depending on her…”

I am sure that other readers will find this book lyrical and profound. I hated the run on sentences and endless paragraphs. At about the 30% point, when I got to a sentence that had 122 words, I gave up entirely. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
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I tend to enjoy books that have somewhat of a plot and/or character development but this book had very little. I know that A Passage North was short-listed for the Booker Prize but it was hard to get through a full novel that was based on navel-gazing and self-reflection. The book felt very disjointed: with Krishan's thoughts of his ex-girlfriend, the side story about the grandmother's caregiver, then a history lesson. I enjoyed Naguib Mahfouz's Heart of the Night as an excellent reflection of one man's life.
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A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam is a beautifully written introspective novel depicting the devastation of the civil war in Sri Lanka through memories and stories.  The writing is lyrical and meditative and consists solely of Krishan's thoughts and memories.  The book is excellent and left a lasting impression on me.  A Passage North has been selected for the Booker Prize Longlist 2021 and rightly so.  I would like to thank the publisher and Netgalley for the ARC.
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Maybe it’s the brain fog I have been experiencing but I had a really hard time engaging in this book and it’s characters. On one level I could understand the complexity of the writing but the author’s style was just not for me.
I found it slow moving and boring. I’m well aware I’m in the minority so feel free to ignore my opinion. I received this as an Arc without knowing it was long listed. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher.
2.75 rounded up to 3
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Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for the ebook. Krishan lives in southern Sri Lanka, after spending most of his adult life studying in Delhi and then working in the north, with his mother and grandmother. Two episodes, an email from Anjum, an enigmatic lover and activist he was involved with in his time in India, and a phone call from the north letting him know that Rani, his grandmother’s caretaker has passed away after falling down a well. Krishan will spend the rest of this dense novel thinking about Rani, who was shattered after so many family loses at the end of the war, and Anjum, who helped shape his life with the example of her activist work, but could never commit to Krishan in the ways he wants and needs.
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This book is beautifully written. It is deeply reflective. It was incredibly informative about the current state of Sri Lanka. It made me realize that I basically know nothing about Sri Lanka. The pace is sort of on the slow side, and I found myself skimming occasionally, but it contains a lot of information for such a short book.

After starting this, I heard that it had been selected for the Booker Prize longlist. It is exactly what you would expect from a book included on that list.
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At the beginning of Arudpragasam's A Passage North, twentysomething Krishan has moved home to live with his mother and grandmother in the city of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Then he receives a message that Rani, his grandmother's former caregiver, who lived in the household with all of them for a time, has died suddenly at her family's rural home in the north. 

He begins the long journey to the war-torn area of northern Sri Lanka to pay tribute to Rani, and along the way he's forced to more fully consider the devastating effects of his nation's thirty-year-long civil war as he views the destruction along his route.

"The process of letting go of a person was always done in gradual stages, from what he'd seen, from the actual body to a reduced body to a symbolic body that was always kept in the house, an acknowledgment both of the difficulty of giving up the body and also of the fact that the bodies of the ones we love can never be fully renounced."

A Passage North is introspective literary fiction in which Krishan examines his young life, analyzes the romantic twists and turns he's experienced, and questions his place in the world. We spend the bulk of the page time within Krishan's swirling thoughts and in his head. Much of the book focuses on Krishan's revisiting of the past as he considers various aspects of war and love, but his journey to the north inspires him to consider issues of class and loyalty and family in ways he hadn't before.

This is a slow journey and often so lovely that I marked to save endless long passages about loss, letting go, aging, and interpreting the world.

I received a prepublication digital copy of this title courtesy of Random House Publishing Group and NetGalley.
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My review of this beautiful and profoundly moving book is up at NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/07/14/1014754686/a-passage-north-is-a-quiet-elegy-for-lives-lost-to-civil-war
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The devastation of the civil war in Sri Lanka lives on through memories, through self-reflective mental images, through stories, through death.

“A Passage North” touches on the history of the violence, immigrants who have left—[Tamils who left Sri Lanka, their struggles in doing so, to live in other countries], and an intimate personal tale about — thoughts —of the caretaker, Rani, who died. Rani use to watch over Krishan’s grandmother…..
all the while…..
          …..Krishan travels by train and buses to attend Rani’s funeral. 

We get plenty of back stories about Krishan’s grandmother and mother whom he lived with in Colombo, and about a woman named Anjum, he can’t stop thinking about whom he met in India — a woman he met in India.  

What stands out is the stream-of-consciousness style writing……
the contemplative prose. There are many long sentences — inviting us inside Krishan’s mind.  And at times it’s like being inside our own minds…..[meditative thoughts about our world, our family, friends, the loss we’ve experienced, our experience of ‘home’, ‘love’, ‘death’]….

When I finished this novel ….beautiful and tragic….I said to myself…
“Whew, the entire novel - 304 pages - felt like one long sentence”!

Beautifully written. Compelling messages of Buddhism…[each of us has wisdom, awareness, love, and power within us]….and illuminating guidelines of images, visions, insights, inner understanding of reality….seeing ourselves as we really are. 
This is a powerful book - takes patience- takes our full attention.  

Example …..of being inside Krishan’s mind:
     “There’d been so many stories of accidents in the north east in the years since the end of the war, drownings, fires, mind explosions, and road accidents above all, so many brief second- or third-page news items that noted how some or another unknown person from the former war zone had died in some or another bizarre or unexpected way.  Accidents happened everywhere, of course, but these accidents had to have been more than just bad luck, for how could such hardy people, people who’d gone through so much and still come out alive, allow themselves to die so easily now and with such docility? 
It was as though there was some other, more obscure logic at work than mere chance, as though death was in someway following these people, who’d managed to survive, as though they were in someway marked, the various statistically high probability‘s on which ordinary life was based beginning, for them, to alter, to change more and more in favor of their unforeseen demise—as though they themselves walked with open arms in the direction of these seemingly accidental deaths, as though they themselves welcomed them or even willed them to take place”. 


     “It was funny how similar desire was to loss in this way, how desire too, like bereavement, could cut through the fabric of ordinary life, causing the routines and rhythms that had governed your existence so totally as to seem unquestionable to quietly lose the hard glint of necessity, leaving you almost in a state of disbelief, unable to participate in the world”. 

I found this book to be a huge open-hearted offering of mindfulness and compassion.

Many thanks to Random House Publishing Group, Netgalley, 
and Anuk Arudpragasam
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Having recently read and liked Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, set in Sri Lanka, I was eager to read Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North.  In part, both books focus on the Tamil-Sinhalese civil war, on love, and on loss.  Both authors gift readers with unforgettable central characters.

Krishan, Arugpragam’s main character, left Sri Lanka to study in India but through a series of circumstances decided to work for an NGO helping rebuild Northern Sri Lanka after long-term civil war.  However, his job is not the novel’s focus.  Readers learn about it only after Krishan has moved back to Colombo to live with his mother and grandmother. 

Krishan is a thinker, not a man of action.  Most of the action takes place in his head as he ponders the meaning of what happens around him and what happened in the past. Don’t expect fast-paced action or even much of a plot. Do expect a thought-provoking book about loss, guilt, longing, and trying to make sense of life and history.  Readers open to a philosophical character-driven novel tackling such issues as past romance, aging, war, and resultant trauma should find A Passage North has much to say. 

Arudpragasam divides the novel's ten chapters into three parts: “Message” (chapters 1-3), “Journey” (chapters 4-7), and “Burning” (chapters 8-10). "Message" includes an unexpected email from a former lover after four years of separation and silence, but the more important message comes as a phone call from the daughter of Krishan’s grandmother’s former caretaker to inform the family of Rani’s death.  The call not only changes Krishan’s plans for the evening, but also leads him on a long journey into former Tamil Tigers territory so he can attend Rani’s funeral amidst a village full of strangers.

The first two sections focus more on human relationships and Krishan’s thoughts about them than on Sri Lankan culture or history.  However, Arudpragasam does describe Colombo as Krishan walks the night of the call and the changing landscape as he travels by train.  Furthermore, the author seamlessly incorporates a few traditional stories and poems into Krishan's recollections as Krishan recognizes connections between his reading and thoughts.  

As even the title may imply, "Burning" is the novel’s vivid, intense, even gut-wrenching high point.  Krishan experiences his first Tamil village funeral and confronts realities of the civil war that he never fully faced during his two years working in another part of the North. The account of two young female elite Tamil terrorists will open Western readers’ eyes to history few know. 

Born in Colombo, Anuk Arudpragasam studied in the U.S., receiving his doctorate degree in philosophy from Columbia University.  He now divides his time between India and Sri Lanka. A Passage North is his second novel.  His first, The Story of a Brief Marriage, was published in 2016.

Thanks to NetGalley, Hogarth/Random House, and Anuk Arudpragasam for an advance reader copy of this powerful novel.
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Know that this is almost as tough to review as it is to read.  It's a meditation, as much as anything else, on the history of Sri Lanka and the effects of its internal strife.  There's virtually no plot- not a linear one anyway- but rather a compilation of Krishnan's thoughts as he travels by train to the funeral of his grandmother's caretaker. Parts of it soar, other parts will make you shake your head.  Thanks to netgalley for the ARC.  For fans of literary fiction.
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A Passage North, by Anuk Arudpragasam, breaks a lot of the “rules” of fiction. There is no recorded dialogue between the characters. There is plot, but the bulk of the story consists of the recollections of the main character as he travels north for the funeral rites of the woman his family hired to take care of his aging grandmother. These recollections are beautifully written, full of Krishan’s thoughts about his former girlfriend, his grandmother’s reactions to getting old and unwell, the efforts by northern and southern Sri Lanka to recover from their long civil war, and the seemingly insurmountable distances between people who can’t find a way to fully communicate their inner lives to each other. This is one of the most meditative books I have ever read.

Krishan lives in Colombo with his mother and grandmother. He works at a job he doesn’t seem to care about very much. For fun, he goes out with unnamed friends to get drunk and smoke cigarettes or joints. He doesn’t seem to have many goals other than just living from day to day. And yet, Krishan doesn’t seem to rise (fall?) to the level of official depression. He’s sad and regretful about the end of his electric relationship with Anjum, who he met while he was studying in New Delhi—but he seems to understand that it couldn’t have worked out in the long run due to their personality differences and goals in life. Krishan strikes me as one of life’s observers; he lives like an outsider who is constantly watching and thinking about everything rather than engaging.

The simple plot of A Passage North begins when Krishan receives news that Rani, the woman his family hired to help his grandmother as she slowly declines, has died in an accident while visiting her family in the north. Obligation and affection lead Krishan to buy tickets to travel for her funeral. Rani, we learn, was deeply depressed at the deaths of her two sons and husband at the end of the civil war—to the point that she needed regular treatments of electroshock therapy—but helping Krishan’s grandmother seemed to give her a new purpose in life. As trains and buses take Krishan north from Colombo to Kilinochchi, he thinks. He thinks a lot.

The train trip serves as a perfect metaphor for Krishan to think about the distance between people. Though he can understand the motivations and feelings of others intellectually, I was struck by how unconnected Krishan was from the rest of the people in his life. He doesn’t have big goals like activist Anjum. He doesn’t cling on to living the way his grandmother does. He doesn’t mourn the way Rani did. Even the literature he references in his memories—mostly centuries’ old Tamil poetry—feature characters who are physically or emotionally separated from their loved ones and just can’t communicate their deepest emotions and inner thoughts. Krishan doesn’t point to language or mental health as the failure point between people. Rather, it seems like distance between people is as natural as the weather.

Krishan’s trip north takes hours, but the ideas and feelings this book touches on shouldn’t be raced through the way the train covers the miles between north and south. A Passage North is a slow read. Arudpragasam, through Krishan, touches on loneliness, forgetting, remembrance, the passage of time, loss, regret, love, and so much more. Not only is there a lot of food for thought in its pages, it is also full of exquisitely beautiful prose. The writing is so lovely and expressive that it’s almost ironic that this book is about a character who can’t or won’t communicate his inner life to anyone. Readers who want to slow down and think deep thoughts for a while will find a lot to love in A Passage North.
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I enjoy reading books set in other countries where I can learn about other cultures and history.  This book delivers big time on this.  I learned a lot about a war and a place I was only vaguely aware of.  This book is set primarily in Sri Lanka with flashbacks to Krishan’s college time in Dehli.  I loved the poetry, and stories from Sanskrit and Tamil as well as the retelling of Siddhartha. This is entirely a character driven book. If you need a lot of plot this may not work for you but I really loved Krishan.  We spend a lot of time in his head.  The writing is lyrical and so descriptive.  The scenes describing our main character falling in love is amazing. There is also a scene on a train that is all about eye contact that was poetic.   If you like introspection with a slower moving plot.  Our main character has moved back home and is reflecting on big philosophical issues.  What is he doing with his live?  What was his relationship with Anjum all about?  His relationship and description with his grandma is very real and I loved her. Her caretaker is the only other character developed and her deatch is a central point to the book.  He takes a trip and I really thought something big was going to happen but all the action is in his own head as he comes to term with life and death and what it all means to him as a young adult. The impact of the trauma of war on all of the characters and also the guilt he feels for not suffering like others is evident throughout.   I’d describe this book as almost a philosophical text leaning toward existentialism but it does end with hope so I was satisfied as a reader.  Thanks for introducing me to a wonderful new author.  Amazing writing. Meditative and contemplative.  This book was compelling even without much of a plot.
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I was lucky enough to win an e-galley of A PASSAGE NORTH by Anuk Arudpragasam through a Shelf Awareness giveaway. Thanks for the early look, and I hope you stay safe!
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I really tried with this novel it is so long winded, I just couldn’t finish. Don’t what the editor was thinking.
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Nota bene: I'm not a fan of long sentences so my take on this book clearly has been influenced by Arudpragasam's writing style. And, I'm clearly in the minority of reviewers [so far].

I was very interested in reading "...this searing novel of love and the legacy of war..." The novel  "..begins with a message out of the blue: a telephone call informing Krishan that his grandmother’s caretaker, Rani, has died in unexpected circumstances–found at the bottom of a well in her village in the north, her neck broken by the fall. The news arrives on the heels of an email from Anjum, an impassioned yet aloof activist he fell in love with four years before while living in Delhi, bringing with it the stirring of distant memories and desires.

As Krishan makes the long journey by train from Colombo into the war-torn Northern Province for Rani’s funeral, so begins an astonishing passage into the heart of a country. At once a luminous meditation on connection and longing and a moving account of the legacy of Sri Lanka’s thirty-year civil war..."

First, I don't think it was a love story.  Second, as said, the long sentences! I found  it often difficult to follow the author's train of thought and spent much time rereading sentences. Third, I found it quite disjointed as I wanted more of the story of the history/strife in Sri Lanka and less of the stream of consciousness.

I felt like i was struggling--swimming upstream. That said, it was a difficult, but authentic read.

"You had to employ these psychological resources so constantly over the course of the day, losing even the freedom to think autonomously in your own mind, that by the time you returned home you were always utterly exhausted."{I was exhausted reading this and it's one of the shorter sentences!]

Here's one I said "yikes"
"It was only when looking at a horizon that one's eyes could move past all the obstacles that limited one's vision to the present situation, that one's eyes could range without limit to other times and other places, and perhaps this was all that freedom was, nothing more than the ability of the ciliary muscles in the eye--the finely calibrated muscles that contracted when focusing on objects close by and relaxed when focusing on objects far away--nothing more  than the ability of these muscles to loosen and relax at will, allowing the things that existed in the distance, far beyond the place one actually was, to seem somehow within reach." PHEW.

I found the descripton of Rani's  Hindu burial ceremony quite interesting and informative.

So..3.5 but not rounding up because I really didn't  enjoy it as much as I'd hoped.
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Beautifully written account of life in Sri Lanka by an author that has lived there through its turbulent history and experienced first hand the horrors of its long civil war. Not only is there a relatively straightforward depiction of life in and around Colombo, but also much introspection regarding the deep subjects that occupy Krishan, most notably the desperation of those who attempt to leave the country and the difficulties faced by immigrants. Not an easy book, but a relevant one.
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