A Journalist-Cum-Novelist on a Trip through the Past

By Hong, Terry | The Christian Science Monitor, January 9, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Journalist-Cum-Novelist on a Trip through the Past


Hong, Terry, The Christian Science Monitor


Tarun Tejpal's debut novel, The Alchemy of Desire, begins and ends with the same words - but with a completely different meaning by book's end. Over the course of 518 pages, an unnamed writer takes a roundabout journey that leaves him, on the final page (fittingly, on the last day of the millennium), a changed being.

Divided into five "books" - each named to reflect important concepts in Hinduism - "The Alchemy of Desire" straddles two centuries, three continents, multiple generations, and whole histories that include the personal, philosophical, and political. The underlying story is of a young Indian couple madly in love: the nameless writer/narrator and his vibrant young wife, aptly named Fizz. What they lack in finances, they make up for in an endless devotion, even obsession, with each another.

A journalist by trade, now rather disillusioned, the narrator sets out to write a novel, minutely planning the endeavor in step- by-step increments. Sadly, the result - called "The Inheritors" - finds its end at the bottom of a lake.

An unexpected journey

Ironically, a literal inheritance - surprisingly, from the narrator's acerbic grandmother who disapproved of the couple's Hindu/ Muslim marriage - allows the lovers to buy a crumbling estate high in the Himalayas which they begin to restore.

During the renovation, a mysterious chest filled with almost illegible notebooks is discovered. In spite of warnings from the local villagers that the past should stay locked away, the narrator abandons his own world - not only his own writing, but even his beloved Fizz. He chases the ghostly past in the notebooks, written by Catherine, the estate's original owner, an enigmatic American explorer who travels from Chicago to Paris to end up in the Himalayas married to an exiled homosexual Indian prince. …

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