Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, long listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, got off to a very strong start.
The story takes place in India. It begins with the young child Nomi retelling the traumatic events of her childhood: her father’s brutal murder, the disappearance of her brother, and her mother’s desertion. Abandoned on the seashore, Nomi is abducted to an ashram in Jarmuli where she spends the next several years as a virtual prisoner and victim of child sexual assault. She manages to escape and returns years later to retrace her past while researching a documentary film about Jarmuli's religious shrine.
Her story intertwines with the exploits of three elderly women sharing the train compartment with her as they journey to Jarmuli for the religious festivities. In Jarmuli, we encounter a series of colorful characters: a homosexual temple guide who pines with love for the tea-maker's young assistant; the tea-maker on the beach who sings sad songs and whom Nomi recognizes as the ashram gardener from her youth, severely beaten for trying to protect her; and Nomi’s assistant for the documentary who turns out to be a son of one of the elderly women. The narrative takes place over five consecutive days, with a sixth day occurring on day eighteen.
Roy weaves in and out of her characters’ lives, allowing their paths to intersect at times or just miss each other at other times. There are shifts in time with periodic flashbacks revealing the characters’ backgrounds and experiences. All this takes place against the backdrop of the sights, sounds, smells, and bustling streets of Jarmuli with the scent of the ocean wafting through the atmosphere.
The first part of the novel was very engaging, the description effective. We are invested in Nomi and her horrific experience at the ashram. The three elderly women, one of whom suffers from dementia, are vividly portrayed with their creaky joints, aches, and pains.
But as the novel progresses, the description becomes perfunctory, the pace slows, and the story seems to drag. What starts off as a very engaging novel peters out, leaving the reader wondering about the inclusion of so many incidental anecdotes and chance meetings that don’t seem to lead anywhere. In the end there were too many unanswered questions, too many loose threads, and too many connections suggested but never explained. As a result, the ending was disappointing.