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Choice by Neel Mukherjee: Novel of important themes hampered by didactic tone

Three socially conscious and moral storylines are interwoven with mixed results

Author: Neel Mukherjee
ISBN-13: 978-1805460497
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Guideline Price: £18.99

Is “a human being just a lull between choices” wonders one of the characters in Neel Mukherjee’s new novel. Composed of three loosely linked stories, Choice presents each of its protagonists with a moral dilemma. “The choice is not always between good and bad”, he writes, “but more often between worse and better”.

Mukherjee’s work is characterised by often socially conscious storylines woven together. His debut, A Life Apart (2010), braided a semi-autobiographical tale set in Calcutta and Oxford with a story about Bengal at the turbulent turn of the 20th century. The Man Booker-shortlisted The Lives of Others (2014) tracked multiple family members through the political unrest of 1960s India. Inspired by VS Naipaul’s In a Free State (1971), A State of Freedom (2017) contained five linked stories addressing social immobility.

Choice doubles down on one of Mukherjee’s principal preoccupations: the lack of agency in inequality. The first section portrays an editor, Ayush, struggling with the ethics of working for “a vast international publishing conglomerate”, including their new diversity imprint. Tensions mount at home as he grows apart from his rational economist husband, Luke, and subjects their five-year-old twins to graphic animal cruelty videos at bedtime. His OCD and depression crescendo, culminating in a final choice.

The second part of the novel is framed as a story by one of Ayush’s authors, MN Opie, who wishes to remain anonymous and ungendered. Opie writes about an academic, Emily, who witnesses a hit-and-run as a passenger in a ride-sharing app. Rather than reporting the incident, she takes pity on the driver, Salim, an undocumented Eritrean immigrant who was filling in for his brother, Karim, who is on dialysis.


Failing to concentrate on her day job in the aftermath of the accident, Emily makes a half-hearted attempt to imagine Salim’s story, bits of which are interspersed in the text. Sadly, Choice portrays the refugee experience and attendant white guilt less effectively than Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (2017), in which a retired professor befriends African asylum seekers in Berlin.

The third and most successful section of Choice fleshes out a story Ayush hears from one of Luke’s colleagues, a development economist. As part of an initiative to alleviate poverty, Sabita, a woman in West Bengal, is gifted a cow – she is one of a small minority of recipients for whom the scheme backfires and leads to tragedy.

Mukherjee does not want to be pigeonholed as an Indian writer “with all that that term and its associations entail”, he told Hanya Yanagihara in an interview. His Indian characters tend to be better rendered than the liberal westerners, however, and the moral complexities of microlending are far more interesting than an itemisation of academic acronyms or Emily’s Sainsbury’s shopping list: “a packet of pine nuts, a bag of carrots, a one-and-a-half-litre container of Persil Non Bio liquid, and some candied orange peel”.

Mukherjee holds that experimentation with form is “seen as a White Guy’s thing” and that “no one is going to even think about experimentation with form when reading [his] work”. But linked storytelling is perhaps less original than he thinks, and we’ve seen justly acclaimed examples of it from non-White Guys such as Junot Diaz, Elizabeth Strout, Brandon Taylor, Bryan Washington, Bernardine Evaristo, Carmen Maria Machado and Jonathan Escoffery.

While covering important themes, Choice is overly reliant on its characters to didactically voice social positions. Ayush worries about the kind of racism “that takes the form of white liberal inclusiveness and its regular need to be fellated” and “the ways advances in behavioural economics are being used as tools to wring every last drop of blood out of workers and, generally, f-ck over the labour side of things”.

Emily, meanwhile, muses that “the world divided into two kinds of people, the ones who dreamed loftily and sometimes immolated themselves to bring about change, often taking down their surroundings with them, and the ones who were patient and bullish, tenaciously nibbling away at the mountain they wanted to move, and one day, they and their likes got it done without destroying themselves and half the world order”.

Emily’s novelist friend Rohan serves as a moral counterpoint: he is aghast that she does not report the accident and at the extreme gift she makes to Karim so he can support his family. When Rohan offers to read her work in progress, he calls her out for culturally appropriating Salim’s story. I, for one, believe in the power of authors’ imaginations to fill others’ shoes. Emily “wanted to know, to imagine, every single detail: from the food he ate in the shepherds’ hut in the middle of the Sahara, the exact nature of what looking after sheep entailed, to how much money he made a day on average begging in the streets of Italian towns, what he and his compatriots used to dig out of the underground prison in Eritrea”.

Me too, Emily, me too. Unfortunately, Choice leaves us wishing.

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a cultural and literary critic