Canadian-Nepali author Manjushree Thapa’s All of Us in Our Own Lives begins in Toronto, where Ava Berriden is equally disillusioned with her job in corporate law and with her marriage. Deciding to leave both behind, she accepts a position with an international aid organization and is soon on her way to a new life in her birthplace of Nepal. Gyanu, meanwhile, has left Nepal for the bright lights of Dubai, finding employment in a restaurant kitchen as one of the city’s many migrant workers. We also meet Indira, one of Nepal’s leading gender experts, who is visiting Paris for a conference, and Gyanu’s sister, Sapana, who has travelled to Nepal on a rare excursion from her village. Sapana’s trip is funded by a local CBO (“community-based organization”) to promote women’s empowerment.
First published in India in 2016 (and re-edited for publication in Canada), this is a novel that – as Gyanu is urged to do by a colleague – “look[s] at the world through a wide-angle lens.” Fitting for a story about cosmopolitanism, Thapa employs astral imagery and the connections between her characters create a kind of earthbound constellation. It is an ambitious project, drawing lines across continents, between cities and villages, and between people of different social standings and backgrounds. It works because characters’ experiences don’t map onto each other exactly, leaving room for complication and ambivalence. Thapa also provides a nuanced look at the “aid industry,” which Ava soon realizes exists less to create change than to perpetuate itself. But in small ways, and despite widespread corruption, some aid groups are still able to make a positive difference.
Presenting the world of the novel through a wide-angle lens doesn’t always make for easy reading – the multiple stories can be difficult to follow, the NGO jargon is confusing, and a few characters exist more to articulate particular viewpoints than to operate as fully realized people. But readers willing to stick with it will be sufficiently rewarded with a vibrant picture of Nepal in a novel that has an original and timely take on our globalized world.