Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People, A Novel

Charlie Kennedy

The Illicit Happiness of Other People CoverManu Joseph’s first novel set his second up for great expectations. Published in 2010, Serious Men claimed the PEN Open Book Award and won The Hindu Best Fiction Award. It was also shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, the regional Commonwealth Prize, and the Bollinger Wodehouse Prize for best comic novel. His prose was called a “searing new voice” by Vogue. So with such heady praise, it seems wise of Joseph to place his second novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, A Novel, in the same locale as his first: India.

Joseph's portrayal of India rings true, with abundant insights into culture, class, and daily life. The Chackos, the family in this story, are placed in 1980s Madras. Intriguingly, Joseph reputedly hinted in media interviews that, when concerned with the characters, all is true in this novel—nothing is apparently made up. There’s certainly a deep and convincing sense of knowledge, sympathy, and wisdom in the lives portrayed; it's the Chacko family that really holds the forefront of the reader's attention from start to finish.

Ousep Chacko is a fallen-from-grace journalist by day and an alcoholic by night. His wife, Mariamma, once an intellect, spends much of her time staring at the walls of their house wagging her finger and talking to herself. When she isn't cutting up her husband's clothing and fantasizing about his death, she tries refurbishing curtains into clothing. Their son, Thoma, is scared of almost everything in life—torn between the fear in his own home and the fear and humiliation that awaits him outside his front door. All of this—Ousep’s antics, Mariamma’s unabashed craziness, and Thoma’s timidity—are enough to warrant gossip from neighbours. But there’s more ammunition.

The Chacko’s eldest son, 17-year-old Unni, a talented young cartoonist, fell head first to his death from the family’s third-floor balcony. It's a premise that sets up not only an intriguing dysfunctional family dynamic that copes by not coping, as the back cover blurb surmises, but also a philosophical meandering that explores and questions how well you really know your own family and how much delusion lies in the pursuit of truth, beauty, and happiness, as Unni believed. The Chackos have long been alienated by those who were once close to them, but now look down on the family's misfortune and poverty. Ousep's newfound determination to understand the reason for his son's death after a piece of mail containing one of Unni's final cartoon sketches is returned to their home also does nothing to bridge the ostracized family back into the community. But perhaps the biggest gap to fill is the one that reigns within the Chacko’s own household as Ousep goes out and speaks to the few people who knew Unni well—the ‘other’ in the title of this book.

Perhaps what keeps Joseph’s work enjoyable and fresh within such a deep, intellectual tone are the wit and tender emotions weaved into such heaviness that it helps to lighten the load. After all, suicide, abuse, and poverty are strong central players in a novel that quite simply questions the existence of happiness. Joseph exits the novel with an open ending—one that still questions and moves forward, much as life does. While the reason for Unni’s death is perhaps answered as best as it ever will be, Ousep’s search for answers—ever the inquisitive journalist—does not cease. While he has learned more about his son after his death than he ever knew while Unni was alive, Ousep still hungers to know more, to learn how Unni saw the world—as a place full of delusion and overwhelming happiness—in a culture that believes unless you pass a school test, you are doomed to a second-class existence. Ousep’s journey takes him through the world of school and standards, expectation and reality, and to corpses and the living.

The Illicit Happiness of Other People, A Novel could most certainly become bogged down by the sheer weight of such a complex topic, a search that demonstrates the perception of truth is by no means simple. But Joseph’s eloquently-phrased novel takes the reader on a journey that parallels Ousep’s attempts to gain a clear understanding of Unni’s death. It’s witty, endearing, and intelligent—proof that Joseph’s second work continues to mark the career of a writer who’s really just begun.

The Illicit Happiness of Other People, A Novel
Manu Joseph
Norton
978-0-393-33862-1


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