Everything the Light Touches–A Novel: Janice Pariat

Published by Fourth Estate/Harper Collins, 2022, 491 pages.

“Not everything the light touches can be seen.”

“‘To strive, to seek, to find, dear Evie,’, her grandmother would sing, ‘and never to yield.’
“‘Never to yield to what?’ she would ask. …
“‘A life bereft of wonder.’”

Four people, separated by time and place, embarking on four journeys, all of them searching for something bigger than themselves.

Shai, a young Khasi[1] woman goes to a remote village in Meghalaya to take care of her nanny; Evelyn, an Edwardian student of botany, sails to India to look for a rare plant; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German writer, travelling under the name of Johann Philipp Möller, slips away to Italy without telling anyone; and Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist who devised the modern system of taxonomy, goes to Lapland looking for plants.

The book is a series of nested stories, starting with Shai in present-day India, then Evelyn in the early 1900s, followed by Goethe in the 1780s, and finally Linnaeus in the 1730s.

The book starts with Shai, who has left her job in New Delhi to move home to Shillong in Meghalaya. She does not know how long she will stay there or what she will do next. “I’m a white dwarf, I tell myself. A dead star. Exhausted of everything life-giving, heavy not just with the weight of the past, but also the sense that nothing lies beyond, no further evolution.” Things change when she finds out that her Kong (nanny) Oiñ is sick. Shai travels to Mawmalang, the remote village where Oiñ lives, to take care of her. She slowly starts to become part of the family and the village, and finds peace in the rhythm of their daily lives.

The next section introduces us to Evelyn, a student of botany in Cambridge at a time when women were barely tolerated in universities (and were not even supposed to ask questions in class). Her love of plants has its roots in what her grandmother had taught her when she was a child. When Evelyn’s imagination is sparked by a plant that can only be found in north-eastern India, she sets sail for the country, ostensibly as part of the “fishing fleet”.[2] Not that she had any intention of getting married, but it was the only way for a single woman to travel to India.

In the third section we meet Goethe, as he escapes from Weimar in the early hours of the morning. Although he has a steady job in Weimar, where he is employed by the Grand Duke, he is dissatisfied. He makes his way to Italy, and becomes part of a group of German artists living in Rome. He focuses on his writing and formulates the theory of the oneness of nature that becomes the centre of his book, The Metamorphosis of Plants.

Finally, there is Linnaeus—the man who created the system by which we categorize all living things—as he travels to Lapland, looking for plants. “The end of travel must be to depict nature more accurately than anyone else.”

Each of the first three stories—Shai, Evelyn and Goethe—leaves the characters at a crucial point in their lives. After the section on Linnaeus, we return to Goethe, Evelyn and Shai, picking up their narratives where they left off. It is a structure that I find does not always work, but Janice Pariat pulls it off. I was engaged enough in all the stories to remember their details, and going back to the characters after having met the others helped to bring an added dimension.

The belief that everything is connected is a central theme of this novel. This is true of the four people whose stories, although separate, are in some ways linked. This is also true of the way nature is studied. Linnaeus classifies all living organisms into separate species and breaks up plants into their constituent parts. Goethe takes issue with this way of “obsessive differentiation, reduction, analysis”. He believes that plants should be seen as a whole, as living entities that are constantly changing and growing. “All is leaf”, he declares. “Where classification separates and fixes and deadens, metamorphosis allows for life.”

Evelyn has read Goethe’s book on plants and is influenced by him, which is partly why she is frustrated by her university lecturers. She feels that not enough value is given to people like her grandmother, who had never been to university but had a deep knowledge of plants. Shai’s father talks to her about the intelligence of “talking trees” and the way they communicate with each other. (There is another connection between Shai’s story and Evelyn’s, but to give it away would be a spoiler.)

The book also brings out the damage done by human exploitation of nature. Mawmalang and the neighbouring villages are threatened by the discovery of uranium nearby. The Khasi Students’ Union manages to evict the mining company. But it returns, this time with promises of roads that would link Mawmalang and nearby villages to Shillong. Some of the villagers are tempted, but it is a poisoned chalice: the roads would make it easier to mine and transport the uranium.

Pariat’s use of language is evocative. Shai worries that Oiñ’s heart might give out: “Her old, strong heart that has held me all my life”. Phyrnai, the nomadic tribeswoman who guides Evelyn in the forest of north-east India says to her, “for us, telling a story is like leading someone through a forest…It is richer the more time you spend in there, the more you walk around and stop to look at the trees and the flowers and the leaves.”

Pariat writes about important periods in the lives of the four protagonists. The section on Linnaeus is written in poems and prose poems, which sets it apart from the rest of the book. In a way, Linnaeus’s story is the starting point for the others, but his way of looking at nature is different from theirs.

Like Phrynai’s story, this is a rich book, well-researched and a pleasure to read.

[1] An ethnic group forming the majority of the population of eastern Meghalaya, a state in north-east India.

[2] British women travelling to India during the Raj in search of husbands were known as the fishing fleet.

Buy from Bookshop.org UK / Bookshop.org USA

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