At fourteen years old I was assigned Paolo Coelho’s landmark novel The Alchemist for summer reading. I threw it on my bed in disgust, barely able to finish the slim volume. To my literal mind it read like nothing more than vague, repetitive abstractions, amounting to almost nothing in the end. Today, over ten years later, I’ve considered picking it up again. To see if I’m stirred by the magic, as I was upon reading Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup.
Like The Alchemist, it is a love story of epic proportions, in which the earth is not merely setting but a protagonist, with its own soul and spirit. But rather than focusing on a single story, Latitudes of Longing unfurls into a book of fairy tales, stories woven together by a few recurring characters and a pervasive prose style.
The first instinct to describe this book is to rattle off its list of characters and settings. A scholar and his prophetic wife, ghosts of every nationality, a political prisoner and his villager mother, a smuggler, a pair of aging grandparents, a gecko trapped in amber, a dancer, a researcher, a turtle. We’re swept away to the Andaman islands, Myanmar, Nepal, Antarctica, even into the depths of the ocean. The plot of this novel is how these elements coalesce. Swarup divides the novel into sections, each featuring a handful of characters, exploring their pasts, presents, and human relationships in amazing detail. Yet the characters float through different sections, forgotten for a while only to surface without warning. The book reads at times as a set of loosely connected stories, and other times as a vast mythos, never hiding from us the effects that time and distance can have.
Swarup’s prose is both the novel’s highlight and what holds it back. On the plus side, there is no sensory detail or wisp of an idea that goes unexplored. Fully fleshed out are the movements of water, passage of time, presence of the mountains, and transfer of one life to another:
“The collision also created rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds. But the amber predated them by an epoch. Trapped within it, the gecko bore witness to one of the most violent events in prehistory. An event that pulverized, hacked, crumbled, slit, and ultimately transfigured the landscape into the unimaginable. No land or ocean was spared the escaping cracks that grew with a life of their own. Flung from great heights to great depths by tectonic transgressions and regressions, it never once opened its eyes. The amber lay in a valley of faults.”
However, while this prose is spellbinding in small doses, it results in fatigue. Unlike The Alchemist, which is very much a novella, Latitudes of Longing is far lengthier. The novel reaches its emotional balance in “Islands,” the first section, telling the love story of a British-educated Indian scholar, living with his homespun wife in the Andaman islands. Theirs is a marriage of equals, as passersby are shocked to realize, and their love story is a slow, satisfying burn that dwarfs every other relationship in the novel. Its placement as the first section of the novel may also have something to do with my preference for it. The narrative can feel weighed down by heavy, detailed prose, as well as deep introspection by each and every character. Additionally, the novel has few moments of levity, and can go many pages without dialogue. The dialogues featured are often philosophical musings on the movements of the world. The characters sometimes laugh, but we don’t often feel laughter. Moments of happiness are few and ephemeral, with the characters’ moods constantly changing like the planet itself.
I found myself recovering by the final section, “Snow Desert,” with its focus on another tender love story, this time between two aging people in a Nepalese village. They come to grips with mortality, losing both themselves and a greater way of life. I feel the fatigue lessening, now that we are no longer trapped in a prison camp, an abusive marriage, or a seedy dance club.
In short, this is a novel I recommend in small, incremental pieces. To read it all at once may feel like a weight on your shoulders.
Nevertheless, I read Latitudes of Longing with a greater awareness that I did not have at fourteen. That is to say, an understanding that my tastes now do not dictate my tastes in the future. I’m willing to revisit The Alchemist with newfound appreciation after ten years. I imagine my appreciation for Latitudes of Longing may abound as well, in hopefully less time.
Latitudes of Longing
By Shubhangi Swarup
Published May 19, 2020