Science tells us that we fall for the people we can’t have. That we fall in love with someone who isn’t attracted to us, and that maybe we chase the people we want to be with because we want to be them. In her new novella The Nine Chambered Heart, writer Janice Pariat takes the science out of love to unravels its layers, a sort of catharsis for the soul if you will.

That Pariat is not interested in the scientific aspects is clear right from the name of the book, considering the human heart is a four-chambered muscle. Instead, the title is a hat-tip to Anaïs Nin and her book, The Four-Chambered Heart, which was an autobiographical novel based on her destructive relationship with the Peruvian poet Gonzalo Moré. Pariat even uses a quote by Nin as the epigraph for the book: “It is easy to love.”

A fragmented (almost) autobiography

Like Nin’s book, The Nine Chambered Heart is also autobiographical, if only partly, as Pariat admits herself. But unlike Nin’s book, this novel isn’t about how relationships easily come apart at the seams. It is a map of a young woman’s life through the people she’s loved and lost and the people who’ve loved and lost her. The only missing piece in the puzzle is an account from the unnamed young woman herself.

Fragmented into nine chapters told by different characters (with one of the characters getting a second chance at piecing their story together), we, as readers, get to live her story as a whole and grasp who this young woman, so easy to fall in love with, is. Love here is illustrated beautifully in all its dimensions, such as in the first chapter, which captures the fascination between the young woman and her art teacher, whom she looks to for attention and receives it in the form of origami. Or a later chapter about her intense, profound friendship with another young woman at university, with whom her conversations run deep in a manner unlike the men she’s with.

The book is set in what Pariat calls “familiar, nameless cities, moving between east and west”, and although these cities don’t loom large in her relationships, the incognito spaces often play a visceral role. In the “city without a river”, the young woman’s relationship with a musician is as stifling as the city during summer. On a holiday in the “city with stone bridges”, a trip that’s on a whim, her five-day relationship with a stranger is just as carefree as her decision to take the trip – to journey alone, away from responsibilities that weigh her down – but meaningful nevertheless. “We feel it’s the right time to be in love...the right age...the right season...and the person is incidental,” as she recounts to another lover.

Perceptions of love

There is no back and forth in Pariat’s third book (after Boats on Land and Seahorse) – the stories are chronological, following the central character through time – it’s more of a Rashomon-like piecemeal of perspectives and reality. The nine characters who recall the young woman they loved are exceedingly kind in how they remember her, their accounts as vulnerable as the love they hold for her. Which again makes me circle back to science. The human brain tends to romanticise past experiences and distort our memories to something they may not have been. Then again, the way one person remembers a relationship is rarely the same way that the other person does. And that is the lingering question of the book: how did you love someone then and how do you remember them now?

There is another question that the novel makes us ask – what does love look like? The answer may be as easy as quoting from Corinthians that “love is patient, love is kind...It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking”, but we’ve all been guilty of loving selfishly, of wanting a person for the gap they fill in our lives or even wanting someone we know we can’t have. It’s selfish because we love them for what we think they are, rather than what they actually are and because we decide (foolishly or otherwise) what we like and dislike about them. As Alain de Botton famously said, we seek familiarity in love and not happiness as we think.

Maybe that explains why the young woman in The Nine Chambered Heart, whose parents are a non-entity in her life as she admits, seeks out love that is fleeting and foreign, a love that is selfish to its very core, all the while seeming to yearn for a parent’s warmth. Perhaps it also explains why the characters who fall in love with her do so, evoking many familiar feelings of their own childhood. If being deprived of someone we love is to be aware of a deep-seated frustration that comes to the fore, The Nine Chambered Heart tells us that the presence of love is only measured by its loss, to love someone is to love everything about them and to lose someone means seeing your vulnerability go away.

The Nine Chambered Heart, Janice Pariat, Harper Collins India.