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THE ALCHEMY OF DESIRE by Tarun J. Tejpal. Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers: New York. December 2006. Hardcover. 528 pages. $26.95.

“Love and desire. To question them is to question life.”

But what happens when they are confused for one another? Such is the case in Tarun J. Tejpal’s debut novel, The Alchemy of Desire, which follows the lives of a young married couple, the unnamed narrator and his beloved Fizz (Fiza), who cannot get enough of each other until a wedge is inadvertently driven between them slowly and unsuspectingly. The wedge comes in the form of the journals of Catherine, a white woman from decades before who detailed her life in 64 leather-bound notebooks.

The young couple begin their relationship in Chandigarh and then find their way to Delhi. In 1988, “People, issues, events, scandals were exploding on the Indian landscape like crackers on an endless string. At the heart of it was the strange and sublime saga of Rajiv Gandhi in Indian politics. He and his monstrous mandate—delivered on the dead bodies of a bigballed leader and the blackballed Sikhs—were both beginning to fray.” In the last quarter of the 20th century, the couple struggle, finding themselves to be their only salvation as India churns socially, politically, ideologically, economically, and industrially.

The narrator, a news editor, fancies himself the author of a great, expansive novel titled The Inheritors. “… I was sure I did not want to write small books about small things. The trivial social, emotional, material and relationship concerns writers labour on about. … I wanted to write the capacious stuff. The grand drama of life, the sweeps of history and ideas and civilizations, the arching movements that make and unmake the world.” Fizz generously gives him all the latitude and support he could possibly want, but his story never completes itself.

Later, he attempts to write again, this time from a different perspective. “This book was going to be the exact opposite of The Inheritors. Not capacious, not sprawling, not spanning generations. I was going to build this around one incident. One incident, one journey, one character. I would carve not an elaborate choker, but a perfect diamond. I felt I had come to understand the power of the small to illustrate the big.” The narrator doesn’t finish this novel, either, doubting its worth and truth.

When he stops writing, he and Fizz begin to draw apart. Unhappy, too, with the pressures of city living, the couple—courtesy of an inheritance—eventually move to the Himalayan foothills, where life would be easier and literature would happen.

The purchase and renovation of the hill house appears to be the salve for any soft wounds inflicted by writer’s block. However, when the workers at the house discover a chest containing 64 leather-bound notebooks, which prove to be the handwritten journals of the original owner, reason flies out the window for the narrator. While he and Fizz are warned to leave the journals alone and not dig up the past, the narrator can’t help himself, devoting his time and attention to reading, analyzing, and detailing them. The woman was an American adventuress who lived in India with her husband, a prince, in the first half of the 20th century. In the journals, she details her life, her loves, and her sexual conquests. The more the narrator’s attention is given to the journals, the more Fizz is ignored until finally her tolerance and good nature evaporates. She leaves. Three years later, the narrator resurfaces and tries to put things right.

Reading The Alchemy of Desire is like taking a restless road trip across the United States. There are flat stretches that are sleep-inducing, there are hilly roads that stir interest, and there are mountainous passages that force one to keep one’s eyes on the road. Once surviving the first 60-ish pages of the book, the flat-scenery part of the ride lessens for a while, and the story picks up speed. Then again, the brakes are applied now and then because seemingly endless ramblings intrude on the flow of the novel. On the positive side, the reader is saved by the upward movement of the fiction-within-the-fiction; the Partition-based story of the narrator’s fearless and resourceful grandmother, Bibi Lahori; and the journals that are later discovered. Despite the fact that those four offshoots stop the ongoing story dead in its tracks, they are marvelously told and beg for attention. Catherine’s story, spanning 100 pages of the book, is worthy of being a free-standing novella on its own merits.

It is unfortunate that the lengthy synopses of the unfinished novels and the recounting of Bibi Lahori’s and Catherine’s histories are far more interesting than the story of the narrator and Fizz themselves. In truth, the most (perhaps only) interesting (or remarkable) thing about the narrator and Fizz is that they enjoy sex at any time for nearly any reason, and they crave it; it’s what keeps them together and as one. Perhaps their story is meant to illustrate some commonness of life—even when frequent, satisfying sex is the basis for the relationship—but the difference between the stories is so vast that the story-within-the-story provides the better parts of the entire novel. Did the author intentionally make the basic fiction so much less interesting than the nested fiction? If so, he succeeded, but it results in an unbalanced and uneven book.

Tejpal is not a novice writer. His 23-year career as a journalist has seen him edit some of India’s top publications; he has written for international newspapers and magazines; and he is the founder of Tehelka, a well-respected newsweekly. Nevertheless, he pours so much into the telling of the fiction-within-the-fiction, that it appears he had too many ideas bouncing around in his head to settle on what would make a tight and powerful novel.

“All stories must end at the right moment before they drown in inanities,” the narrator tells the reader. With that in mind, they must also begin at the right moment for the same reason, and while it seems to take forever to end, it seemed longer than eternity to begin. In the Middle Ages, chemistry’s chief aim was to turn baser metals into gold and to discover the elixir of youth. That was alchemy. For all the novel’s ramblings, for some strange reason, it has a certain amount of alchemy … but not enough to make it a truly rich experience.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in beautiful Central North Carolina where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a long-time Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association....