From the Man Booker Prize-nominated author of Sleeping on Jupiter and “one of India’s greatest living authors” (O, The Oprah Magazine), a poignant and sweeping novel set in India during World War II and the present day about a son’s quest to uncover the truth about his mother.
In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman. The man was in factGerman, but in small‑town India in those days, all white foreigners were largely thought of as British.
So begins the “gracefully wrought” (Kirkus Reviews) story of Myshkin and his mother, Gayatri, who rebels against tradition to follow her artist’s instinct for freedom.
Freedom of a different kind is in the air across India. The fight against British rule is reaching a critical turn. The Nazis have come to power in Germany. At this point of crisis, two strangers arrive in Gayatri’s town, opening up to her the vision of other possible lives.
What took Myshkin’s mother from India and Dutch-held Bali in the 1930s, ripping a knife through his comfortingly familiar universe? Excavating the roots of the world in which he was abandoned, Myshkin comes to understand the connections between the anguish at home and a war‑torn universe overtaken by patriotism.
Evocative and moving, “this mesmerizing exploration of the darker consequences of freedom, love, and loyalty is an astonishing display of Roy’s literary prowess” (Publishers Weekly).
This reading group guide for ALL THE LIVES WE NEVER LIVEDincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman. The man was in fact German, but in small‑town India in those days, all white foreigners were largely thought of as British.
So begins the story of Myshkin and his mother, Gayatri, a rebellious, alluring artist who abandons parenthood and marriage to follow her primal desire for freedom.
Though freedom may be stirring in the air of India, across the world the Nazis have risen to power in Germany. At this point of crisis, a German artist from Gayatri’s past seeks her out. His arrival ignites passions she has long been forced to suppress.
What follows is her life as pieced together by her son, a journey that takes him through India and Dutch‑held Bali. Excavating the roots of the world in which he was abandoned, he comes to understand his long‑lost mother, and the connections between strife at home and a war‑torn universe overtaken by patriotism.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Myshkin tells us that “in telling the story of any life, and certainly when telling our own, we cannot pretend we are narrating everything just as it happened” (p. 11). Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why?
2. Myshkin notes that there is a drastic difference between Gayatri’s life before and after she married his father. What does this tell us about Myshkin’s opinion of his mother and his relationship with her?
3. Throughout the novel, Nek, Myshkin’s father, constantly says “there are hobbies and then there are serious matters” (p. 22). What does this tell us about Nek’s character? Describe his opinion of Gayatri.
4. Myshkin mentions characters such as Walter Spies, Beryl de Zoete, and Akhtari Bai. How do they influence Gayatri? Why are they important in this story?
5. Identify the types of power structures that play out in the novel.
6. The notion of “freedom” has an important role in the story but it means a different thing to each character. What does this word mean to Myshkin, Nek, and Gayatri?
7. Discuss the moment Gayatri leaves Myshkin and her family behind to run away with Walter Spies. How does this affect Myshkin, and how does the event influence his character development?
8. Several months after Gayatri leaves, Nek decides to go on his own spiritual journey, leaving Myshkin in his grandfather’s care. What do you think of Nek’s actions? Explain.
9. How does Myshkin view Lipi’s appearance? Why is he so resentful towards her in the beginning?
10. Certain chapters towards the end include the letters that Gayatri sent to Liz Aunty. Why do you think the author wanted readers to see this? How might have things been different if readers were never shown these letters?
11. In the letters, Gayatri reveals a long-held secret. How does the truth affect Myshkin?
12. Compare and contrast Myshkin’s relationship with his mother and that with his father? To which parent was he closest?
13. At the end of the novel, Myshkin is setting out on a journey of his own. What is the significance of this decision?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research the lives of real-life historical figures that appear in the novel, such as Walter Spies, Beryl de Zoete, and Akhtari Bai. How do they compare to their fictional counterparts?
2. Myshkin narrates All the Lives We Never Lived in retrospect. What effect does this have on the story? Try writing your own history and narrating it from the perspective of your future self.
3. The novel describes two large events in history: World War II and the fight for India’s independence. Why do you think the author chose such events as the novel’s backdrop?
4. Read Anuradha Roy’s previous novels Sleeping on Jupiter,The Folded Earth, and An Atlas of Impossible Longing. How is All the Lives We Never Lived similar to or different from to these novels? What are some recurring themes?
Anuradha Roy is the author of An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth, as well as Sleeping on Jupiter, which won the DSC Prize for Fiction 2016 and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2015. She lives in Ranikhet, India.