THE CITY OF GOOD DEATH
By Priyanka Champaneri
433 pp. Restless Books. $28.
In the first pages of “The City of Good Death,” two boatmen drift on the Ganges River, ensconced in an early morning fog: “Smoke curled from both men’s nostrils and melted into the grayness that clotted the air.” Throughout this epic, Champaneri remains attuned to such atmospheric details, both physical and emotional.
Set in the holy city of Kashi, where Hindus travel to “die a death that was the best one could hope for on this Earth” — one that ends the cycle of “rebirths and miseries” — the novel pays particular attention to the topographies of mourning. The protagonist, Pramesh Prasad, manages a well-respected death hostel. Business is good, until the dead body of Pramesh’s estranged cousin, Sagar, appears in the river, and his ghost descends on the building. Pramesh wrestles with how to appease the spirit. He wants to “detach” — as he would advise the families of his ailing guests — but knows he must venture back into his painful childhood to unlock the story of his cousin’s drowning.
If this initial setup is operatic, the haunting is surprisingly ordinary. Champaneri subtly renders how grief lurks in mundane objects and gestures. Sagar’s ghost clangs pots each night at two hours past midnight, and Pramesh must call out “bhaiya,” Hindi for “brother,” to silence him. Pramesh often reaches to rub his eyebrow, tracing where his cousin had a prominent scar. Grief becomes omnipresent, and therefore routine. Roaming the city in this way, Pramesh “felt mobile, alive — but then guilt followed closely behind, inseparable from that good feeling, because every breath and step were ones that Sagar would never again take.”
At least Pramesh is not alone. Champaneri shifts among the perspectives of his wife, his assistant and other characters inside and outside of Kashi, who also harbor anxieties about the ghost and their own private histories. The novel remains an intimate portrait of Pramesh, and yet the other characters allow Champaneri to articulate how grief and healing are social processes. Indeed, Pramesh discovers relief in solidarity. A young boy reads aloud from his journal, and Pramesh, listening, “marveled that such flimsy material, thin as onion skin, could hold so much pain.” Just as grief descends, sudden and sweeping, so too can wonder and joy.
SILENCE IS A SENSE
By Layla AlAmmar
292 pp. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. $25.95.
After escaping Syria and arriving in the United Kingdom, the narrator of “Silence Is a Sense” lost the ability to speak. She turns to writing to express herself and anonymously submits nonfiction to a “newsmagazine with a big name,” only to encounter fresh restrictions. Her editor, Josie, keeps asking for “a nice little packet of memories she can serialize for her readers.” As the narrator writes in one essay, “humanize” is “a well-intentioned word that nevertheless concedes the argument that some people are not people and so require some art form to render them human.” Still, she continues to work with the editor, and the novel interweaves her articles about the refugee crisis through her private, first-person narration.