My Nine Lives

Although her publishers describe My Nine Lives as a novel, and the subtitle of the book is “Chapters of a Possible Past,” the book really consists of nine “potentially autobiographical” short stories, each told by a narrator whose life story is one that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala may have lived in part or wished she had lived. Most of the stories occur at least in part in India, where Jhabvala went to live after she married an Indian, and involve Jewish-German characters. For Jhabvala, India is the land where naïve Western young people go for answers and where they are exploited, although usually the knowledge of that exploitation does not dispel their attraction to India. “The Dancer with the Broken Leg” concerns an American girl, who is used by a budding, then successful, Indian politician. Even the dissolute Vijay in “Gopis” remains attractive to the young Lucia, who, like the narrator, falls under his spell. In “Life” the narrator ends her life destitute in India.

None of Jhabvala’s characters, Indian or Western, are sympathetic. The women are usually the products of broken homes and drift into affairs out of boredom or listlessness. In “Ménage,” for example, the narrator, a talented, well-educated young woman, follows in the footsteps of her mother and her aunt as the mistress of an accomplished musician, to whom she devotes her life. The narrator in “Pilgrimage,” the last story, allows “C” to sell her mother’s possessions. She follows him to India, where he drops her after his career as guru is established. Rather than being angry, she waits until he is jailed, follows him to Texas, and waits for his release, believing that even in their eighties the future lies before them. Jhabvala’s satiric stance, despite her portrait of longing and transcendent love, makes her seem detached from her characters.