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Decades after his mother’s disappearance, a man searches the past for clues

Anuradha Roy’s debut novel, “An Atlas of Impossible Longing,” established her as one of India’s most-celebrated fiction writers. That story, about the pains of family life, determined the center but not the circumference of the novels she has gone on to publish, including “The Folded Earth” and “Sleeping on Jupiter,” which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015.

Her new novel, “All the Lives We Never Lived,” is once again filled with impossible longing. The plot is a silhouette in words, an anguished delineation of the shadow cast by a woman’s absence. “In my childhood,” the narrator begins, “I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.” Though many decades have passed, the pain and shame of that abandonment still feel fresh. “My mother had torn herself up and scattered her shreds in the breeze when I was nine. Ever since, I have scoured everything I read, see, hear, for traces of her.”

Book review: ‘An Atlas of Impossible Longing’

Fans of Michael Ondaatje’s recent novel, “Warlight,” will appreciate Roy’s similarly sensitive exploration of a child’s mingled confusion, resentment and hope. Her narrator, nicknamed Myshkin, confesses to a life sapped by his mother’s disappearance. He has avoided friends and lovers, and he still lives in the house where he was unhappily raised. Wary of being hurt so badly again, he dedicated himself to the more reliable companionship of plants and trees. “They ask only that you are regularly, consistently, caring and watchful,” Myshkin says. “I was.”

The story develops along two intermingled paths. On one, Myshkin re-creates his childhood in the early 1930s in India under British rule. His mother is a vivacious young woman wholly devoted to him but irritated, in ways a son could never understand, by the censorious eye of their small town. “In her personal list of the seven deadly sins,” Myshkin recalls, “obedience sat somewhere at the top and propriety followed close behind.” Her unusually sophisticated upbringing did nothing to prepare her for the stultifying demands of traditional motherhood. Her husband considers himself a liberal thinker, but, if so, he’s an excessively pious one. Their marriage quickly devolves into a contest of wills, an awkward exchange of hot rebellion and chilly condescension. Myshkin remains caught in between, craving the affection of a delightful mother who inexplicably leaves him and the approval of a pompous father who constantly criticizes him.

While these sections are infused with a child’s innocence and easily bruised affection, there’s another strain running below the surface: the contemporary story of an old man learning to temper his anger and acknowledge the limits of his understanding. “In telling the story of any life, and certainly when telling our own,” he writes, “we cannot pretend we are narrating everything just as it happened. Our memories come to us as images, feelings, glimpses, sometimes fleshed out, sometimes in outline. Time solidifies as well as dissolves. We have no precise recollection of how long things took: a few days, weeks, a month? Chunks of time are a blank, while others grow to be more momentous in retrospect.”

Even as Myshkin recalls the scarring effects of his mother’s abandonment, he retains that humility, which makes him receptive to an unexpected source of insight on the past. Indeed, some of the novel’s most fascinating incidents involve his mother’s unlikely friendship with two real-life artists: the English dancer and scholar Beryl de Zoete (1879-1962) and the German painter and musician Walter Spies (1895-1942). They pass through India on their way to Bali studying local dance and culture. To Myshkin’s mother, an aspiring artist herself, they are idols of unimaginable freedom — entirely unconcerned with traditional gender roles or sexual propriety.

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Many readers may not be familiar with de Zoete and Spies, which makes Roy’s graceful reanimation of them even more enchanting. De Zoete manipulates everyone around her with a quiver of intimidation, wheedling and wit. Spies, meanwhile, is almost preternatural: He first appears to Myshkin by swimming across a river, “as unlikely as a penguin or a giraffe.” Curious about all things and talented in all the arts, he seems incapable of discouragement. These two foreigners remain shimmering stars in the night sky of Myshkin’s past, from when his “universe was real and dreamlike in equal measure.” But as the chaos of World War II metastasizes around the globe, their lives are devoured by the same mystery that swallows his mother.

“All the Lives We Never Lived” begins in such intimate, private pain, but as Myshkin’s sympathies expand, so does the novel’s scope. The result is a story that eventually encompasses the world far beyond a boy’s little town. “The roots of trees go deep,” Myshkin writes in his typically poetic voice, “and take many directions, we cannot foresee their subterranean spread any more than we can predict how a child will grow.”

That metaphor is an apt description of Roy’s work, too. Even more captivating than the unexpected turns of this plot is the way she reaches into the depths of melancholy but never sinks into despair.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

All the Lives We Never Lived

By Anuradha Roy

Atria. 288 pp. $26.

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