The Book of Everlasting Things by Aanchal Malhotra
Published by Flatiron Books
Publication date: December 27, 2022
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Cultural, Historical
The Book of Everlasting Things is a multigenerational debut spanning the globe from India to Europe. Initially set in Lahore, India in the 1930s and 40s the novel encompasses 70 years in the lives of one Hindu boy and one Muslim girl. Two children, who despite different backgrounds, grow into love only to have it, and their lives, shattered when Great Britain partitions part of India into Pakistan.
I was entranced by the book’s initial setting with one family of calligraphers and the other of perfumers. Despite their different religions the fathers of Samir and Firdaus meet when Firdaus’ father wants a special oil to scent the paper he’s having made for an important manuscript. Samir has such an acute sense of smell, it’s his conduit to the world and his future in the family’s prestigious company. For Firdaus the world is about illustrating, writing, translating the words of the great men of science, literature, and religion.
Lahore is a city, a place, that while still here in name and location no longer exists with the same spirit. The Lahore of the 1930s and 40s was a vibrant, diverse city with Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians co-existing without enmity. Each has their own places of worship and follows their social mores, but socially and economically they interact without problem. Samir and Firdaus fall in love through letters and brief meetings, but the traditional next steps of parental permission to date, with the goal of marriage never happens as Lahore is torn apart when the city becomes part of the Muslim country, Pakistan.
Despite the first half of Everlasting being a traditional young love story, it’s alive with life and culture. By the midway point the novel shifts back to the past of Samir’s beloved uncle, Vivek. It becomes mired there even as the timeline moves ahead through the years. Just as Samir cannot live in the present the novel stagnates. It’s probably overthinking on my part but ultimately Everlasting Things cements the feeling that too much time in the past obscures the present and destroys the future. I was loving this novel, completely absorbed in the world of scent and calligraphy and the sensory delight of the intersection of the two. Then all that life ground to a halt, the narrative momentum lost.
With hypnotic prose author Aanchal Malhotra brings to life the intimate details of the ancient arts of creating perfume and of calligraphy. But all the emotion and history she distills into explosive beauty in the novel’s first half, dissipates in the second half. They almost read as two separate novels and, in a way, I wish they were because part one of The Book of Everlasting Things is 5-star reading. It’s the stagnation and loss of direction in the second half that leaves the book at 3 stars and makes me sad.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Flatiron Books in exchange for an honest review.*