Talent 2010: The novelist, Neel Mukherjee

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The Independent Culture

The literary end of publishing in Britain has a lazy habit of keeping stories, and formats, neatly separate. It prefers a place for everything, and everything in its place. So a first novel by a Calcutta-born critic who lives in London might, according to the usual categories, revisit the Raj at the turn of the 20th century, as a sympathetic Englishwoman seeks to shed the bonds of class and race and make connections with nationalist circles in Bengal.

It might, alternately, tell of a bright gay student's passage from India, and an overwhelming Calcutta family, to Oxford – not today, but in the very recent past – and his ordeals and adventures there. Or it might even plunge a desperate young "illegal" into the London underworld, hustling to survive on the seamy side of an emergent globalisation.

But no one, after all, actually lives in publishers' boxes. In A Life Apart (published by Constable on 28 January), with its journey between and behind the surfaces of two cultures and two eras (both, in their way, historical), Neel Mukherjee not only smashes the partitions dividing several spurious genres: the Raj novel, the "migrant" novel and so on. He shows that love, and need, can and will ride roughshod over borders cultural, political, sexual – and literary, of course. Published in India last year, Mukherjee's debut has already won the country's Crossword Award for fiction. It should make a deep mark here as well.

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