Stephan Lee
November 06, 2014 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Lives of Others

Current Status
In Season
137 minutes
Limited Release Date
Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Muhe
Florian Henckel
Sony Pictures Classics
Florian Henckel
Drama, Foreign Language

We gave it an A-

It’s awards season, which means books described as ”ambitious” or ”epic” or ”spanning generations” are in abundant supply. Indian-born author Neel Mukherjee’s second novel checks those prestige-lit boxes — it’s been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize — but what’s dazzling about The Lives of Others isn’t just its scope or literary acrobatics but also its matter-of-fact humanity.

The novel opens on the well-to-do Ghosh family’s Calcutta home in 1967. The grand four-story mansion is a clear symbol of the clan’s inner hierarchy and the stratified society of India at large: The patriarch, Prafullanath, rules from the top with his wife, Charubala; three married sons and their families, along with a spinster daughter, fill out the middle; and on the ground floor dwell the unmentionables, the widow of a black-sheep son and their kids. For much of the novel, domestic conflicts occupy the Ghoshes — Prafullanath’s once-thriving paper empire is crumbling, and the many children, grandchildren, and spouses (the book comes with a handy family tree) harbor dark secrets and engage in petty spats. Outside the mansion walls, though, political unrest is roiling the Bengal region, and the Ghoshes’ rebel child Supratik’s involvement in the radical Naxalite movement forces the family to reckon with the sea change happening around them.

While much of the drama is intriguing and the final chapters are breathtakingly tense, The Lives of Others can be a tough, nonlinear read at times. But hang in there. It’s not until the unsettled but wholly satisfying end that the force of this journey hits you in waves. A-

Memorable Lines:
”There isn’t a thread of shade anywhere. The May sun is an unforgiving fire; it burns his blood dry.”

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