Book review: Dark Circles by Udayan Mukherjee

The novel is well-paced and plotted for the most part, and the language used is sparse, if a little melodramatic at times.

Udayan Mukherjee’s debut novel, Dark Circles, is the story of a family coming to terms with a secret. Brothers Ronojoy and Sujoy discover a certain indiscretion committed by their mother. And then, past events begin to make sense. Theirs is a bond fraught with tension, and the family is further thrown into confusion because of a letter.

That letter is one that their mother Mala left for them before her death. Living in an ashram for over 20 years, she has had little or no contact with her sons. Indeed, it did seem as though she did not want to see them. However, guilt and the burden of keeping a secret for too long force her to write a letter to her older son Ronojoy, and that is how the novel begins. Ronojoy reads the letter after his mother’s funeral and is devastated.

Sujoy, on the other hand, is furious.

The brothers weave the threads of the story in Dark Circles. Ronojoy appears to be the more stable of the two. He is the older, ever-protective, apparently composed brother. Throughout their childhood years, Ronojoy has tried to protect his younger brother. Sujoy is bitter, impulsive, and prone to self-destruction. Both brothers suffer from bouts of depression. The reasons for their unstable lives are many. Their father’s sudden death and the whispers that followed it. Their mother’s change in behaviour and her apparent ‘abandonment’ of them in a boarding school. Her absence and distant demeanor. It leads the brothers to conclude that she might not have cared as much as she should have. Tensions in the family pile up one after the other.

Dark Circles is very much a family story. The story is layered with tense and suspenseful moments, especially when the contents of Mala’s letter is revealed. Her sons must make decisions that could alter the course of their lives. They must decide whether or not they should forgive her transgressions. And there is also a meeting with a certain individual that they must tackle.

Depression is a major theme in the book, and Ronojoy’s struggles with it are convincingly portrayed. The burden of being the older, responsible brother begins to take its toll, especially with the weight of expectation on his shoulders. Sujoy is a well-developed character — brash and riddled with guilt when he does have an outburst. His marriage is troubled because he feels tied down. Nevertheless, it does seem at times that he might have a better chance of confronting and perhaps overcoming his mental demons that Ronojoy does. Subir, the father of the brothers, struggles with hopelessness of a different kind that is only amplified by the doings of his wife. He is a writer who has failed to make an impression. Mala is candid when she reads his work and that only adds to his dejection. Then comes the event that shatters his peace of mind completely, and permanently.

Nobody is really happy in Dark Circles. Everybody has their secrets and inner conflicts to deal with. The crux of the tale might be familiar, and Mala’s transgression, and why she did it, is easy to guess. That such an indiscretion could possibly destroy the lives of her children, and even her grandchild, is what gnaws away at her. As such, the concept is a familiar one for it has been done before.

As for Mala, she is a strange character. She struggles with temptation, guilt, and remorse to the point of not being able to raise her sons the way she would have liked. Putting them in a boarding school without warning fosters resentment in them and fractures their relationship with her even further. She checks into an ashram in an attempt to run away from her memories and finds that the past often catches up and there is, for her, no escape.

The novel is well-paced and plotted for the most part, and the language used is sparse, if a little melodramatic at times. An air of gloomy intensity pervades the book. Ronojoy’s depression and the emphasis of the narrative on it do become slightly heavy-handed at times and not exactly subtle. Sujoy’s guilt at being married is also bluntly put across, as is his inner turmoil. Timelines move back and forth as incidents are revealed that lead to the events described in Mala’s letter. The story is told from different points of view and some characters have their backstories told in something of a hurry. Strangely, the story peters off right at the end and is wrapped up unsatisfactorily. The gist of it is clear, but that is all it is – a gist. The last few pages seem rushed and far too condensed, the chapter itself reading like a summary.

Overall, Dark Circles is an interesting read.

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Book review: Dark Circles by Udayan Mukherjee

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