The Rewards of Rereading: A Review of Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North

By Eva Soares

Since the Booker Prize announcement on the third of November, we know who has won this year’s prize, namely Damon Galgut with  The Promise. I also know who should have won the 2021 Booker prize. The criteria for choosing a winner are sparse and vague. Officially, the only criterion is for a novel to be considered the best in the judges’ opinion. You might be wondering, and rightfully so, how I could be so certain when it all depends on the subjective opinions of an alternating panel of judges. My claim is based on, what the current and former Booker judges consider, the strongest aspect of a book: its ability to be reread. According to Charlotte Higgins’ article “Inside the Booker Prize”, what the judges look for is “a book that basically rewards rereading” and can be “appreciated from different viewpoints by different judges”. In other words, a book that will continue delivering some form of discovery and pleasure with each rereading is a winning book. Keeping this in mind, I argue that Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel A Passage North should have been the Booker Prize winner. 

Krishan is a young Sri Lankan man living with his mother, grandmother Appama, and her caregiver Rani in a post-civil war Sri Lanka. After a tragic call from Rani’s daughter, he is obliged to travel across Sri Lanka by train to Attend Rani’s funeral. His mental preparation and voyage across his home country prompts his mind to explore personal memories, philosophical thoughts, questions of life and reflect on the world around him. A Passage North is equally a physical and mental voyage as the reader follows Krishan’s musings and life story. With today’s consumption practices where the longest booklist is revered rather than the time spent on a single book, it would have been easy for me to simply read the novel and move on to another. Yet, after a single reading of A Passage North much of its content was left unrevealed. Rereading is almost necessary to enjoy the full range of themes, tropes, and symbols it presents. The novel’s richness and diversity is what allows for multiple readings, always offering the reader a deeper understanding and appreciation of it. In a single train ride from South to North of Sri Lanka, Arudpragasam touches upon love, death, getting old, trauma, religion, the psyche, journeys, and travel. These topics interact with each other, creating additional subjects and fueling nuanced discussions. The relationship between Appama and Rani, “that rapidly aging woman who was fighting to remain in the world and that invisibly wounded stranger who didn’t seem to care about whether she stayed or left” shows how love and friendship can heal someone physically and mentally (Arudpragasam 172). Rani is given a purpose and an uninhibited companion through Appama. While Appama sees Rani as her accomplice in obtaining information about the going ons of the family, something she can no longer do on her own as her age increasingly isolates her to her room. 

A Passage North also depicts the link between trauma and migration. Upon seeing advertisements discouraging Sri Lankans to emigrate, Krishan, wonders “how was it possible to convince such people not to risk their lives going elsewhere, not to attempt migrating to countries that seemed, in their minds, far removed from these sites of trauma” (Arudpragasam 190). Having worked for an NGO in the North shortly after the war, Krishan knows that the reason most people leave is to run away from the places that have caused pain, death, and terror in their lives. He emphasizes the necessity to migrate in order to escape trauma, creating physical distance from a mental wound. In this way, the novel’s themes mix with each other, revealing connections which could not be made so easily. With each new reading comes a reward in noticing these connections and relating to them. 

To add to the novel’s already rich narrative, Arudpragasam frames its reading with the recurring trope of the gaze. Throughout the novel, the gaze and the eyes play a symbolic role in grasping concepts of death, trauma and beauty. Krishan is faced with the power a gaze can have on individuals. He participates in and is an observer of many stare downs, where “a kind of tension [builds] up from each person’s sense that the other person could see inside them” (Arudpragasam 121). Gazing at someone is a transgression of that person’s intimacy, thus it holds power. In the novel, eyes become a symbol for that gaze and its potential effects. The war prisoner, Kuttimani, is aware of the symbolic power eyes hold. He asks that, after his execution, his eyes should be given to a blind child “so that they too might look into the horizon” (Arudpragasam 198). Thus, eyes represent a powerful sense of freedom, the ability to look out at a distance. This powerful symbol was not lost on Kuttimani’s killers either, since they destroyed his eyes in revenge. Krishan also wonders about the deterioration of the eyes as people encounter scenes of beauty and violence throughout their lives. He reflects that “perhaps it was not just images of beauty that clouded one’s vision over time but images of violence too, … both of which marked and branded us, limiting how far we were subsequently able to see” (Arudpragasam 261). The freeing power of the gaze is, in time, clouded by the subsequent images life brings along. In this way, Arudpragasam ties together the various themes the novel discusses with the effect of the gaze. Trauma and beauty are held on the same standard as images which affect people to the same extent. The fact that with old age eyesight deteriorates is linked back to these images and the journey of life. I could go on listing and exploring each intersection of themes and the gaze for an entire thesis, yet I would have only touched upon its surface.

“Following Krishan’s musings on his life and that of his relatives, the reader is taken through a form of therapy coming out of each reading with more tools to deal with and appreciate our own lives.”

A Passage North has come to mean, for me, a bottomless well from which I can draw new philosophical views of life’s struggles and rewards. Not only does this novel withstand rereading, it provides a form of guidance. Following Krishan’s musings on his life and that of his relatives, the reader is taken through a form of therapy coming out of each reading with more tools to deal with and appreciate our own lives. This is a novel which aims to heal and guide us, especially after the difficult period the world has been through, and which would surely have been a worthy Booker Prize winner. 

Eva Soares is a graduate of Utrecht University’s B.A. Literary Studies, and she is now completing an M.A. degree in Literature Today. Having an international background – French, American and Portuguese roots – her main interest is literature dealing with culture and multilingualism.

Works Cited

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