Review of A Play for the End of the World by Jai Chakrabarti
Chakrabarti offers characters with complex struggles, hopes, and haunting memories who work to form deep, heartwarming connections in this luminously written debut novel.
"For family you must fight like a tiger," Misha once told him.
Chakrabarti's A Play for the End of the World takes place in 1970s New York and in rural India, with key characters dipping into each disparate world--and finding to their surprise that they have connected with a place, with its pace, and with the patterns of its people.
A survivor of the World War II Warsaw Ghetto (haunted by ghosts from his childhood and the desperate measures he took to cling to life), Jaryk Smith has made a life for himself in New York City. He explores his Jewish faith, forms a community of friends, ponders life, then falls in love with a Southern woman, Lucy Gardner, who is from Mebane, North Carolina.
When Jaryk learns that his like-a-brother friend Misha from his childhood orphanage has died under mysterious circumstances while in India (on a trip he had wanted Jaryk to accompany him on), Jaryk travels there to collect his ashes.
With his last tie to Poland gone--without Jaryk having entrusted him with the truth of his escape from the train that took the rest of his orphanage to a cruel death--Jaryk is deeply shaken.
While Lucy is in New York City reflecting on their relationship, he becomes drawn into a bare-bones yet complicated Indian production of a play--the same play his orphanage director and father figure, Pan Doktor, once put on with the children in the Warsaw Ghetto in an effort to introduce the concept of death before the tragic end he foresaw.
This has been the question on his mind--how do you protect a child in a world that means to malign, trade suffering for suffering?
Lucy seeks him out with important news, and Jaryk finds himself stuck between past and present and struggling to hold on to a promise of a future for himself and his love.
Jaryk unwittingly, then uncomfortably, then somewhat resignedly, becomes tangled in the complicated politics of the time in West Bengal. The building of tensions during this significant portion of the book had me nervously dreading the tragedy that was surely coming next. (It wasn't what I had feared.)
The unlikely Jaryk-Lucy connection captured my heart, the Misha-Jaryk friendship was fantastic, and Chakrabarti's writing--about New York's bustle, small-town Indian life, the power of music and art, and a yearning for love and acceptance while fearing rejection and not feeling worthy--is luminous.
This was my book club's first read of the year.
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A Play for the End of the World is Jai Chakrabarti's first novel.
You might also like some of the other books with Indian settings I've reviewed on this Bossy site.