three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
By: 
Vikram Seth
user_rating: 
0

A Memoir

A-TwoLivesSeth, author of A Suitable Boy (1993), became acquainted with his Uncle Shanti and Aunt Henny when, at age 17, he left Calcutta to study at Oxford. In this memoir, Seth recalls his affectionate feelings for the pair while recounting their lives against the Holocaust, tumultuous Indian history, and 1970s England. The two met when Shanti, Seth’s great uncle, studied dentistry in Berlin, where he lodged with Henny and her mother. Shanti soon immigrated to Britain; Henny escaped Nazi Germany (the rest of her German Jewish family perished in concentration camps). Reunited in England, they married years later. Two Lives recounts their half-century relationship—and the events that propelled two extraordinary lives.
HarperCollins. 503 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 0060599669

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"These are not characters. They become people we know. … In the context of an evil century, this odd couple, the Holocaust survivor and the one-armed dentist, could have no better epitaph." Sandip Roy

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"The story that Seth offers up is really the fusion of at least three separate narratives—sort of the literary equivalent of nested Russian dolls. … But in truth Seth’s repetition and excursions away from his central point are almost always skilled. They build up layers which help us to know his characters ever more intimately." Marjorie Kehe

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The heart of Two Lives—and its most resonant material—concerns World War II and the upheavals it wreaked on Shanti and Henny and everyone they knew. … What elevates Two Lives above its rich but in some respects familiar story is Seth’s presence as ‘an anomalous third braid,’ sometimes visible, sometimes not." Heller McAlpin

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"What Seth has done here is draw multiple paths between now and then, between pre-war and post-war, between visceral personal details and the big historical picture. … Seth lays all this out in a translucent, telling prose that delicately unveils facet after facet of Shanti and Henny, until they stand before us poignantly, yet with humor to them, too." Michael Upchurch

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Swept away by his subject, the author often falls into a dull, chronological re-creation of the biographical record, fleshed out with long historical digressions on, say, the Italian campaign of World War II and reflections on the cruelties of the 20th century. … Actually, he is telling a great love story, involving two remarkable people." William Grimes

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"As a biographical subject, Shanti seems like someone to whom things happen, not someone who gives shape to events through his own reflection and insight. … [Seth’s] forays into geopolitics are unquickened by the special knowledge and insight that might have been afforded by [his] Indian background and experience." Pankaj Mishra

Wall Street Journal 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Its physical heft, alas, is not matched by its spiritual weight, which is a pity, for Mr. Seth offers here a great and moving tale only to thwart its proper telling by an inability to edit himself and by a failure to keep his sentimentality in check." Tunku Varadarajan

Critical Summary

"I want [Shanti and Henny] complexly remembered," Seth writes. "I want to mark them true." Seth meets this goal. Two Lives, a biography and record of pre- and postwar life, is at heart a story about two individuals that fate and urgency—more than romantic love, perhaps—thrust together. Relying on interviews and Henny’s gut-wrenching letters from the 1940s and 1950s, Seth reinterprets Germany’s war years and depicts Shanti’s struggle to establish a dental practice and the couple’s deep friendship. Throughout the book, he casts a sharp, clear eye on historical rumblings, offering a welcome Anglo-Indian perspective on the Holocaust. Seth could have pared down his details, better scrutinized his relatives’ relationship, or been more (or less) "objective" about their lives. But in the end, Shanti and Henny are two you’ll want to meet.

Also by the Author

A Suitable Boy (1993): Seth, in tracing the lives of four families, creates a sprawling saga in 1950s India. At the center of the story is Lata Mehra’s quest for a suitable boy to marry: will she choose true love or the businessman preferred by her mother?