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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Illicit Happiness
of Other People


by
Manu Joseph


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Illicit Happiness of Other People



Title: The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Author: Manu Joseph
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 296 pages
Availability: The Illicit Happiness of Other People - US
The Illicit Happiness of Other People - UK
The Illicit Happiness of Other People - Canada
The Illicit Happiness of Other People - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : often inspired story (and story-telling)

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 19/1/2013 .
India Today . 31/8/2012 Anvar Alikhan
Outlook India . 24/9/2012 Amitabha Bagchi
The Telegraph . 11/9/2012 Christy Edwall
Wall Street Journal . 4/1/2013 Sam Sacks


  From the Reviews:
  • "It is the story of a family getting to know itself, of a socialist India that no longer exists and of a society obsessed with grades. It is a plot-driven yarn with themes of morality, sexuality, psychiatry and yet more science and philosophy. It is, perhaps, a bit much. Yet Mr Joseph manages to pull it off." - The Economist

  • "A stylishly written book, which starts out as being darkly comical, and then grows progressively darker and more disturbing, as Ousep Chacko pursues the mystery of his beautiful, radiant son, peeling the onion, layer after layer after layer until he finally arrives at the sad, shameful nothingness at its heart." - Anvar Alikhan, India Today

  • "The register is caustic and unforgiving, reminiscent of Naipaul. (...) A major weakness of this book is that it is unable to bring its two major themes -- the sociological concerns around gender and the philosophical concerns about the nature of reality and perception -- into any significant conversation. (...) This book is absorbing, its canvas is rich, it has a haunting quality. It is, in a word, important." - Amitabha Bagchi, Outlook India

  • "(A) cocktail of character, culture and religion. (...) A constant and pervasive search for meaning in a novel will inevitably get a bit heavy-handed. Nevertheless, Joseph’s prose is exquisitely phrased without an excess of sentimentality." - Christy Edwall, The Telegraph

  • "The book is mordantly funny -- Ousep, who is nearly always drunk, conducts his detective work with buffoonish belligerence -- but through them Mr. Joseph sneaks in trenchant philosophical explorations and pressing social criticism of India's sorry history of rape and sexual assault." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Illicit Happiness of Other People is set in Madras (now called Chennai), in southern India, around 1990. At its center is the Chacko family: Ousep, the once-promising Malayalam author now reduced to working as a journalist for the United News of India news agency; his wife, Mariamma, prone to intensely talking to herself; twelve-year-old son Thoma; and son Unni -- dead three years now, but still a significant presence in the household. Ousep is obsessed by his son's death, a suicide on 16 May 1987, with no note or explanation left behind, and the novel essentially follows Ousep's quest for an answer or resolution to this family tragedy.
       Unni was a talented cartoonist, and Ousep pours over the sixty-three cartoons and comics that he left behind:

     Somewhere in Unni's cartoons and comics is the clue that will explain everything. That is what Ousep believes. There is nothing else left to believe, really.
       Recently Ousep came into possession of a sixty-fourth comic, and this is what leads him to redouble his efforts to find an answer, as he again pesters all of Unni's old classmates and friends, asking everyone for any additional information that might explain why Unni did what he did.
       As noted early on:
     That a mystery must have a resolution is obviously not a requirement of nature. It is, in fact, another deceit of writers. A plot device, like the idea of a beginning, a middle and an end. In the real world, are mysteries usually solved ? What are the chances ? Was there ever a person in this world who went in search of an answer and actually found it ?
       Beside the lingering question of why Unni committed suicide, The Illicit Happiness of Other People is full of many of the mysteries of life. Young Thoma puzzles about a great deal as he is slowly maturing, and Unni's many philosophical questions also crop up over the course of the narrative.
       Unni was a boy who: "thought too much, he was full of ideas". His comics and cartoons -- quite a few are described in detail -- are very clever and often explore philosophical conundrums. But Unni was also a strange soul, unlike all the other boys. Prone to act unusually, he was nevertheless respected; his quirkiness did not alienate him from his classmates. He also exerted a strong influence over others -- and often created situations so that he could observe how people reacted in them. As one former classmate recalls:
He wanted others to do things, so that he could watch.
       Generally playful, on occasion he would escalate incidents -- arguably dangerously so, and occasionally certainly morally dubiously so (though Unni clearly had a strong sense of justice and what is 'right'). Ousep is correct in sensing that Unni's classmates were hiding things from him, and only slowly can he draw out a fuller picture of what Unni did and what he led them to do.
       Unni also had an unusual philosophy:
According to him everybody is happy. And people who are unhappy are only fooling themselves.
       The Chacko household, often wallowing in misery exacerbated by failure and impecuniousness, would suggest happiness is rather more distant for some, yet Unni seemed to live unencumbered by so much that weighs others down (including being largely indifferent to his studies while his classmates focused obsessively on the exams that would determine their futures).
       The Illicit Happiness of Other People is also a novel of a culture unable to deal with sexual desire. The children -- and often young adults -- remain uninformed about basics, leaving boys mystified by the hardening of their penises, or making plausible a story of a girl who becomes pregnant without understanding what led to that. Young Thoma is just beginning to have these stirrings, but is ill-equipped to deal with them -- and, like all the others in the novel, has no one with whom to discuss them. Yet side by side with this naïveté is a pervasive culture of sexual harassment. In a scene that sums it all up, Thomas watches as a man slaps the bottom of the neighbor-girl, Mythili, who does not react; Thoma does not understand the nature of the act, and is surprised when his mother, whom he is walking with, clobbers the man with a coconut when he passes by them as he continues down the street; the man does not react to being hit -- continuing the charade of not acknowledging what had just happened which only the slightly mad Mariamma is willing to make a fuss about.
       Sexual urges, societal stifling of them, and then widespread sexual harassment which everyone turns a blind eye to are pervasive in the novel, a fundamental flaw in this society that Joseph wants to address here. He manages not to let it overwhelm the book, but it is a difficult balance to strike.
       A number of secrets are revealed over the course of the story, and the picture slowly comes together. If steeped-in-drink Ousep remains a bit too limited, and his background a bit underdeveloped, Mariamma, Thoma, Mythili, and especially Unni are nicely well-developed characters -- in the sense too that they develop over the course of the story with the insights into their lives and backgrounds that are shared. The people from Unni's past Ousep encounters and who add (or try to hide) what they know are also handled well: this isn't just a roll-call of building blocks to complete the structure. And Joseph tells a good story, too -- many in fact, from the inspired comics he invents for Unni to many of the episodes along the way.
       Dark but not bitter, The Illicit Happiness of Other People does juggle a bit much and can't completely live up to Unni's (admittedly impossible) promise -- yet Joseph does more with the unlikely character than one might have thought possible.
       Flawed but forgivably so, The Illicit Happiness of Other People is a fine novel (and very good read) by a writer showing exceptional promise.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 December 2012

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Links:

The Illicit Happiness of Other People: Reviews: Manu Joseph: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Indian author Manu Joseph was born in 1974.

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© 2012-2013 the complete review

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