Two Lives: A Memoir is the first Vikram Seth book I’ve read (I seem to be making a habit of introducing myself to authors who primarily write fiction by reading their non-fiction work; the only Barbara Kingsolver book I’ve read is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and On Writing is the only Stephen King book in the house, although I haven’t read that one yet.) I found the title of the book slightly misleading – while the book is certainly about Seth’s uncle Shanti and aunt Henny, it’s also very much about his relationship with them.
The book is divided into five independent parts, each approaching different facet of the story. It starts off with the young Vikram Seth arriving to live with his aunt and uncle while he attends school in England, and his perceptions of them. Then, we learn about Shanti’s life, then Henny’s, then their life together. I was expecting the book to be more narrative than it was; a large portion of it quotes various interviews and letters. Much of the narration that accompanies the quotes seems more like annotation or clarification of context. At first, I found this annoying, but I got used to it.
The story of Shanti and Henny is certainly makes fascinating reading. Shanti is a Hindu from India who studies dentistry in Germany, and Henny is the daughter of the Jewish family he boards with while doing so. However, their love story blossoms in England. Both of them are remarkable people in their own right – Shanti is a much-loved practising dentist, even though he lost one of his arms in World War II. Henny’s story is quite tragic; her mother and sister do not make it out of Germany, and she has to face many truths about her family and friends after the war is over. I think her correspondences were the most interesting part of the book – we got an intimate look at how she coped with a tragedy of the magnitude of the Holocaust. She always remained incredibly dignified and restrained, though.
At times, I found myself wishing that the book was a little more focused. It seemed like Seth structured the book around trying to present every bit of information that he had (especially about Henny), rather than build a cohesive narrative. At other times, I appreciated the tangents and extra details about the couple’s family and friends.
I also had mixed feelings about the author talking about his own feelings at various points in the book. On the one hand, they made it feel more intimate – he is in fact, writing about the aunt and uncle that he loves and respects, so it’s nice to see that come through. On the other hand, some of the things he said seemed superfluous and distracting; for instance, he talks about the different areas of the world and technologies that Germany has had an impact on (including some thoughts on the future.)
This is book 9 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.
Two Lives by Vikram Seth
Harper Perennial, 2006 | Buy the book