If I am asked to describe Janice Pariat’s new novel Everything The Light Touches in three words, I would describe it as vast, strange, and ambitious. If I am asked to describe the novel in one idea, I would say it is an extraordinary story of travellers spanning continents and centuries: Here are four people, separated by time and space, who find kinship with nature as they travel from place to place in search of companionship and compassion. At 487 pages, Light is a long and demanding read.
Shai, Evelyn, Johann Philipp Möller (aka Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), and Carl (Linnaeus) are the travellers in Light. The novel starts and ends with the sections featuring Shai with all (except Carl) getting two sections each. You might already be familiar with Johann and Carl – after all, they are permanent fixtures in school Biology textbooks. Shai is a young woman from Shillong working in Delhi who returns to her hometown for the first time in years without a return date in place. Evelyn, a young woman in Edwardian England, has no desire for domesticity and instead wishes for a life of adventures and discoveries.
Four travellers, four journeys
The novel opens with Shai waiting to board a flight to Shillong at the Delhi airport. We are made familiar with Shai’s concerns about her home – her parents have encouraged her to leave her place of birth and set off to the big city to be free of the daily turbulences of local violence. And what might this violence be? It is cultural and political. Shai reflects on Meghalaya being “swallowed up by Assam” and how ridiculous it is that their home is called “Meghalaya”, “the abode of clouds”, in Sanskrit – a language that has never been spoken or understood by the people of the state.
Shai’s mother is as pragmatic as ever and her father’s vociferous crusade to preserve native flora baffles her mother – she cannot quite empathise with her conservationist husband’s beliefs about talking trees, their capacity for memory, and of being creatures of elevated intellect. Like most of us who live in urban dwellings, Shai is also blissfully unaware of her people’s resistance against the haphazard exploitation of natural resources. Following a journey inspired by her childhood nanny’s illness, Shai witnesses up close the fables and traditions that sustain life in Meghalaya and what it really means to return home.
In the next section, we travel with Evelyn to Edwardian England. She is deeply interested in botany and has no interest in pursuing eligible suitors like many of her friends. A student of Goethe’s radical thinking, Evelyn is frustrated by the lack of academic opportunities in her country. In hopes of escaping balls and persistent talks of marriage, she embarks on a ship and travels to India with the desire of exploring the mysterious forests of Lower Himalayas.
Her pursuit reveals more ominous truths as she realises that it’s not just women who are being neglected in the study of science. Since it has such rigid views of what and who is worthy of scientific pursuit, Western sciences, in some ways, offers a limited perspective of the natural world. Wandering in forests and speaking with its residents broadens her appreciation for the intricacies of the natural world in a way that perhaps no classroom can.
Goethe travels under the alias Johann Philipp Möller in Italy in the late-18th Century. He is mesmerised by the unreal beauty of Sicily and Rome, and falls in love with a charismatic woman. All this while he is seeking the ideas that will result in his seminal work, The Metamorphosis of Plants. Pariat’s imagination is most fertile in this section. She fuses facts with fiction, and in many ways it is a compelling portrait of a man in the flush of youth and on the brink of a groundbreaking achievement. She convincingly writes about Rome, “the capital of the world,” and its everlasting impression on the minds of some of the leading scientific minds.
However, the most creative section is probably the one featuring botanist Carl [Linnaeus’s] 1732 expedition to Lapland. His expedition is told in verse, poetry, and prose – here Pariat experiments with structure and form. A poem about trees is structured like a tree, and another about Christ, like a cross.
To me, this section was an interval of sorts. Putting this section right in the middle of the novel was certainly certainly a good idea since it appears to be a convergence of the desires of the other three: finding solace in one’s roots, undertaking journey to new lands in pursuit of scientific knowledge, and finally, striking the right balance between philosophy and modern science for a fuller understanding of our own existence.
A journey to our roots
“The starting point must be to marvel at all things, even the most commonplace,” writes Pariat’s Carl and I suppose this is also the central philosophy of Light. A sense of wonder and gratitude colours all four accounts. Each person leaves home in search of a greater truth and eventually realises that it is the smallest organisms that contain within them all of nature’s secrets. And teachings.
Time slowed down for me as I read Light and I realised that the novel is more concerned with facilitating the reader with ways to think about the past, present, and future of the planet than it is with emerging as a composite body of fiction at the end of 490 pages. From the first attempts to classify the natural world and present-day indigenous land rights movement, Pariat charts the course of humankind from wonder to negligence of the natural world that we share with other creatures. This is a difficult message to convey, for we are all a part of this exploitation.
However, this is an ambitious (an adjective that will be liberally used to describe the book) novel and though I admired her writing chops, the novel lacked for me the basic requirement that makes any book truly memorable – an intimate familiarity with its characters. I travelled many miles across continents spanning centuries with these four people, yet they remained strangers to me. At some point, the plot becomes burdened with its own ambitions (that word again!) and in its singular mission of conveying a certain idea forsakes the primary quest of keeping the reader consistently engaged.
Oiñ, Shai’s childhood nanny tells her, “There is a forest at the centre of the earth, and that is where we all must go,” and perhaps this what Pariat’s Everything That the Light Touches is about – the inevitable journey that we must all make to our roots to accept and appreciate our individual and interconnected existences.
Everything the Light Touches, Janice Pariat, Harper Collins.