Manu Joseph, The Illicit Happiness of Other People (2012)

In 1990s Madras, journalist Ousep Chacko spends his days trying to find out what caused his teenage son Unni to commit suicide three years ago.

All Ousep has to work with are a few of Unni’s comics (Unni having been a talented cartoonist), and the possibility of talking to Somen Pillai, an elusive former school friend of Unni’s. Elsewhere in Ousep’s life, his wife Mariamma is losing her grip on reality and sometimes wishes him dead; and his younger son Thoma is developing a crush on a neighbouring girl. Piecing what happened to Unni might be the only thing that could bring the family back together – that is, if it doesn’t pull them apart.
The plot of Manu Joesph’s second novel runs in ever increasing circles, revisiting old points to reveal a little more each time. We’re aware early on that Unni was at times disruptive at school; but the complete picture of how and why only emerges later, casting a different light on what we knew. Likewise, Unni’s worldview comes into focus only gradually, a tense and intriguing process. Added to this are some striking observations; for example: “From their dark windows and doorways people stand and gaze, looking bored, expecting a greater boredom to reach them; it is as if they know that the extraordinary does not exist.” The Illicit Happiness of Other People is an engaging read that leaves readers with plenty to think about afterwards.
(This review also appears at We Love This Book.)
J.R. Crook, Sleeping Patterns (2012)

Jamie Crook is the latest recipient of the Luke Bitmead Bursary for unpublished writers, which leads to a publishing contract with Legend Press; so here’s his winning novel, Sleeping Patterns. It’s presented as a set of story-fragments sent by a character named ‘Jamie Crook’ (deceased in the book’s present) to Annelie Strandli. The fragments tell of how Jamie and Annelie came to know each other as students, as well as a third student named Berry Walker. Annelie found herself drawn to Berry, an aspiring writer; but finding a hidden manuscript of his made her reconsider what she thought she knew.

Sleeping Patterns is a novel of piecing together the truth, on several levels. Just as Annelie constructs an image of Berry from the pieces of his manuscript, so the reader has to construct what happens in Crook’s novel from the textual fragments presented out of chronological order. There are hints in each layer of narrative that what we’re reading has been shaped for some other purpose, and secrets to uncover to the very end. That mystery keeps one reading, but Sleeping Patterns also gives cause to reflect on how far we can really know people, no matter how well we think we do. This is an intriguing start to Crook’s career, and it’ll be interesting to see what he writes next.