Anjali Joseph is trying to explain her second novel. She fiddles with her teacup, sighs, and swiftly gives up. "See, if I tried to sum it up in a sentence, that sentence would hardly make people run to the bookstore and purchase it anyway," she laughs.
It's not the most auspicious of descriptions. But then, Another Country isn't a straightforward book. Essentially, it tracks the protagonist Leela's journey through her 20s as she moves between three cities: Paris, London and Mumbai, referred to as Bombay by the author in conversation and in the book. Leela is a strange, diffident, almost distressed soul who finds relationships difficult to maintain and self-confidence hard to come by.
But her life doesn't take place against the backdrop of great drama. This absence of discernible narrative is a gamble, but hugely exciting as a piece of writing. And such commitment to character rather than plot is surely born of the confidence that came from Joseph's first book Saraswati Park – which won two of the UK's most prestigious first novel prizes and India's highly regarded Vodafone Crossword Book Award.
"I can enjoy a heavy-plotted detective novel, but I find I don't remember much of it afterwards," she says. "I was reading Flaubert's A Sentimental Education while I was writing Another Country, which is set in an amazing time, the 19th-century revolutions in France. But Flaubert has the confidence to write about really normal things, and nothing major happens for absolutely ages. That's fascinating, really, because that's what real life is like."
So, via Leela, Joseph similarly explores the "stuff you don't usually read about in novels", such as the dull monotony of a dead relationship.
"It's not heroic if your protagonist is having endless, petty, repetitive arguments," she smiles. "But we all have them, don't we? I wanted to ask why we have them."
All of which sounds appallingly hard-going. But the slower rhythms of Another Country quickly become completely engrossing, and Joseph is particularly perceptive about the sense of home, and where that might be in the migratory 21st-century world.
"Throughout the book, Leela is thinking about home," she admits. "She goes back to Bombay because she thinks she can rediscover it there. But she can't, because by that point her predicament isn't where she is, it's who she is. It's interesting, home is often just a remembered sense of childhood, embroidered by memory.
"So how can you go back there? You can't physically go back to your childhood."
It's a peripatetic experience with which Joseph is familiar. After all, she was born in Mumbai in 1978 and has lived in all three cities in the book. "It's not my diary or anything," she argues. "Yes, in a way it's a reflection of me, but the book is more about the gaze back to that period. It would have been like Sweet Valley High if I'd actually written it in my 20s, even though it is about someone trying to navigate that part of their life."
I stop Joseph in her tracks. She has, right there, just summed up her fascinating new novel, and Leela, in a sentence. Not so difficult, after all.
Anjali Joseph says she was intrigued by "how you express different parts of your personality in different cities". Here, the author of Another Country explains how Paris, London and Bombay (Mumbai) have affected her.
For me the first part of the story has the feeling of a literary journey, because Paris is a place where everyone used to go and be a writer. By the time the book visits the French capital, it's not quite like that. But although it had become more work-focused, people were still able to enjoy themselves outside the routine. I did live in a small flat very similar to how Leela's is described, and there is this vague sense that the architecture and topography of a place shape how you live.
If you go to university in England, London feels like an unavoidable rite of passage. You just assume you'll end up there to work. In a way my relationship to London is similar to Bombay: if you're not living there all the time, you fall out of the stream of what's happening. That might sound quite superficial, but part of living in a big city is being aware of that current. I actually think the London section is the most depressing part of the book. At that age for me it did appear to be incredibly work and routine driven. You look at the faces of people on the Tube... London can be, well, quite dour.
I do in many ways feel it's home... when I'm there. Bombay is a city that moves very fast so if you're living there you can feel abreast of things. But going back once or twice a year can be quite an odd feeling: favourite places have closed down, a big flyover has popped up out of nowhere. So you know your way around but you also feel disoriented. It's odd, previous generations left India to study or work and didn't come back, but now it's really common to spend part of your life elsewhere and then return. The movement is in both directions.
By The National