JANICE PARIAT’S NEWLY released novel, Everything the Light Touches (2022), is a wildly ambitious book told from the point of view of four people, Shai, Evie, Goethe, and Linnaeus. Set between the 18th century and the present, this powerful novel’s primary interest is in botanical voyages and legacies. Linnaeus, whose section is the shortest and told entirely in prose poetry, is based on the real-life scientist credited with the creation of modern taxonomy. Though we do not encounter his side of the story till the middle of the novel, he looms large for the two botanists, Goethe and Evie, who have the unenviable task of forging work in his wake.
For those who have read Andrea Wulf’s extremely popular biography of the influential naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature (2015), some of the characters and concepts in Pariat’s novel will be familiar. But knowledge of the history of botany is not essential to enjoying Everything the Light Touches as it shows us the complicated history of exploration, journeys as driven alternatively by curiosity and lostness, the ever-evolving nature of science, and the lengths the human race will go to acquire meaning and knowledge.
One possible consequence of the book may be to motivate us to question our turbulent relationship with the planet, but I found myself wrestling with a less clear mandate. I see it as one of the novel’s strengths that it doesn’t espouse hope exactly. Instead, it seems to settle on a deep interest in our history and a profound appreciation for what the relationship between the individual and the planet can look like.
The prologue is a cautionary tale, narrated by a collective voice—a trope increasingly used in contemporary fiction with roots in folk narratives that have not one, but multiple, changing narrators. The voice proclaims that humans are cursed to be earthbound, punishment for destruction of the original order of the world. We return to this voice at the very end, and one can’t help but view the four protagonists as part of an enmeshed narrative that eventually subsumes the individual into the whole.
Shai, Evie, and Goethe, are the primary protagonists and each of them chafes against their “earthbound” circumstances, reaching into the natural world for the meaning and mystery missing from their everyday lives. Whereas Linnaeus functions as a shadow of a foil to the other three, chasing order and names, the others crave the “unnameable” and connections between the specific and the whole.
Shai, a lost, unhappy young woman in contemporary India, finds herself back in her hometown of Shillong searching for whatever is next. She stays with family, looks up old friends and old flames, visits the local museum, but fails to find an anchor to steady her. She is described by one of her friends as a woman with “no inner compass.” Shai’s discomposure in her hometown will be painfully relatable for many people who have loved and left a place only to return searching for redemption or roots that no longer exist, making one question if they ever did. It’s a fate antithetical to the one popularised by stories that show the triumphant return and reassimilation of the town’s prodigal children. The author recognises that for some of us, there is no coming back, no discovering that we belonged all along. Pariat captures this sense of emotional displacement with incredible and affecting accuracy.
Shai sets out for Mawmalang where her former nanny hails from and has returned to live out her final years. In a remote part of Meghalaya that neither Shai nor her parents have ever been to, Mawmalang lies removed from health, education and road infrastructure. Yet, the area is plagued by exploitative and polluting uranium mining. Each of the characters journeys into the heart of darkness, though not in the Conradian sense, seeking in the unknown a chance to be someone they can’t be at home. In Mawmalang, Shai finds a rhythm and a purpose, locating within the pause a kind of time she can live within.
Travel is the very engine that powers the novel, allowing each character to discover insight and serenity in a way that has escaped them thus far. Janice Pariat takes us through rome in the evening light, the Sunderbans as experienced on a long cruise, and a haunted village at the edge of Meghalaya
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Evie, a British woman in the early 1900s, stands in sharp contrast to Shai. She is driven by a certainty and stubbornness that are remarkable considering the mores of her time. She journeys to colonial India in search of a plant. In many ways, she is an anti-Humboldt. She is no man traipsing through whatever wilds she pleases, with unlimited funds and sherpas at her disposal. No, her adventuring is a reward for careful social manoeuvring and plans laid months and continents in advance. Evie is torn, as the other two will be, when she finally encounters a fellow botanist who sees the world as she does. She desires to be part of the world and apart from it, leaving her with often impossible choices.
With Goethe, based on the famed 18th and 19th century poet and scientist, Pariat chooses to focus on the story of the two years he spent in Italy where he is transitioning between late youth and early middle age, between poet and scientist. Overwhelmed with the extraordinary, but stifling success of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Goethe flees his administrative duties, leaving behind a complicated entanglement as well as those who wished for him to remain who he once was. He travels to Rome, and then to Southern Italy, where the plants are abundant in a way they are not in his native Germany.
Travel is the very engine that powers the novel, allowing each character to discover insight and serenity in a way that has escaped them thus far. Pariat takes us through Rome in the evening light, the Sunderbans as experienced on a long cruise, and a haunted village at the edge of Meghalaya where uranium has driven away every living being. Even Linnaeus is on a critical expedition to the Laplands when we meet him in the book. In a novel of such length, it should have been tedious to be forced so often into the role of observer of landscape, but astonishingly, the prose remains engaging and the scenery of genuine interest to the reader as it is to the character. Both Goethe and Linnaeus went on to write crucial botanical texts after these journeys, and though Shai and Evie are fictional characters, I could see them being irrevocably changed by their excursions.
There are sections of the novel that are particularly weighed down by details of botanical science. While I enjoyed most of these, I do wonder how a reader disinterested in plants would experience them. One of my only criticisms of the novel is that I wish instead of the Goethean society Evie was a member of, we had been allowed to better know secondary characters such as Agnes and the other women who studied in the abandoned chapel where Cambridge sent woman botanists to work out of sight.
This is a book for people who read Robert Macfarlane, Helen MacDonald, Peter Mayle, and, of course, Andrea Wulf. But it’s also a book for anyone who loves the world and would rather be in the woods or in their garden than anywhere else, and for readers who have enjoyed other contemporary novels following scientists and researchers such as Lily King’s Euphoria (2014) or Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in The Trees (2013).
For over a decade, I have been reading Pariat’s words, which have taken the form of poetry, short stories, and novels and novellas. I even read her micro-essays on Instagram. There are few writers whose work doesn’t undergo metamorphosis over time and Pariat’s style has changed with every book she’s written, if perhaps remaining anchored in her interest in unrequited, unequal and thwarted love. Everything the Light Touches is her strongest work till date and I will be thinking about these characters for a long while yet.