The Illicit Happiness of Other People

Manu Joseph

John Murray 2012
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015
Three years ago seventeen-year-old Unni Chacko, cartoonist and school student, threw himself to his death from the balcony. Now a cartoon he posted just before he died has, courtesy of a glitch in the Indian postal system, been returned to his father Ousep, who resumes an abandoned attempt to understand why his son died. He pores intently over the comics Unni drew and takes to obsessively pigeonholing those who had known him — his fellow students, teachers, friends and artists — asking them to tell everything they can remember about him.

Ousep is a drunkard, a failed writer who holds down a job as a reporter but comes home every night stumbling and yelling; as his wife Mariamma says, "the kind of man who has to be killed at the end of a story". Mariamma is "very smart, but a bit nutty": she has a doctorate but now talks to the walls. Unni turns out to have been involved with a circle of disturbed students who were probing the foundations of reality. And relatively normal younger brother Thoma is falling in love with Mythili, the girl next door who had been Unni's friend. The Illicit Happiness of Other People could be seen as an exploration of a variety of mental health problems, and these do drive much of the plot: the delusions of schizophrenia, a traumatic event in Mariamma's past, visits to hospitals and neuropsychiatrists, a case of the extremely rare Cotard's delusion, and so forth. But Joseph's characters are too complex to be confined by labels or cliches; they are also fully integrated into their broader familial and social worlds.

The Chacko family is not happy. Mariamma has taken to waking Ousep up each morning with a bucket of water, she desperately attempts to cover up the family's poverty, and her Catholicism has become more fervent. And Thoma tries to negotiate a path between the unpredictabilities of his parents. The broader setting is middle-class Chennai (Madras) in the 1990s. In the tower-block estate in which the Chacko family lives, the women scrutinise everything from their balconies, eager to avoid and impose social opprobrium. The girls have to protect their modesty at all costs. And the boys cram desperately to get into the elite engineering colleges that will lead them to jobs in Silicon Valley.

It starts slowly, but picks up speed with a series of revelations about Unni as well as the development of some subplots tied in with Ousep's quest; the twists and turns here are genuinely unpredictable. But the plot elements are handled with delicacy and never overplayed for melodrama, tension or sentimentality. And the often dark material is handled lightly, producing a novel with subtle shifts in mood that never attempts either tragedy or comedy. The Illicit Happiness of Other People is an original story with striking, and in their own strange ways surprisingly attractive, characters.

November 2015

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%T The Illicit Happiness of Other People
%A Joseph, Manu
%I John Murray
%D 2012
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781848549012
%P 298pp