The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph


Cut my red heart in two

There’s never an easy way to deal with suicide.  We may be able to figure out why someone chooses to end their own life, but that doesn’t mean we understand it or ever completely recover from the loss.  In Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People, the Chacko family is plagued by the mysterious suicide of their 17 year-old son, Unni.  It’s been three years since Unni jumped from a balcony and ended his life, but the family is far from closure and peace.

Unni’s father, Ousep, spends his days and nights stalking his son’s friends, begging them to help him figure out why his son did what he did.  But no one can offer any sound explanation – instead, Ousep only comes away from these forced interview with more questions about his son.  At night, he returns home drunk and confused, leaving the rest of his family feeling abandoned and angered by the mental and physical descent of their patriarch.  Unni’s younger brother, Thoma, is equally distressed and feels the pressure to fill the shoes of his lovable and widely revered older brother.  His mother, Mariamma, is desperate to return her family to normal, but stunted by her own range of psychological issues.  Each family member slowly retreats into their own mentality, unaware that they are rejecting the very concepts they are desperate to regain – communication, happiness, peace, and truth.

Just as much as this novel is about grief and trauma, it is also about family dynamics and the idea that, even though you may live with people and see them on a daily basis, we all have the ability to conceal our deepest truths and desires.  As Ousep searches for the desires and truths of his son, he neglects to tend to his living relatives.  He is so obsessed with solving the mystery of chosen death that he overlooks the importance of chosen life.  Every single day we wake up and make a subconscious decision to live.  We deal with sorrow and pain, but somehow moments of happiness and contentment escape our consciousness.  It is necessary to our mental health to not question these moments of tranquility, but Unni wanted a deeper understanding of every emotion, which, for a seventeen year-old adolescent can be overwhelming and devastating.

The Illicit Happiness of Other People is a brilliant ponderance on the source of emotion and the various mental states we encounter on a daily basis.  You may not agree with his findings, but these musings are fascinating and enlightening nonetheless.  As the Chackos soon realize, some mysteries are never meant to be solved, but the greatest error is never to wonder.

:: Karli

PEN Open Book Award winner Manu Joseph ‘s second novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, is set in 1980s Madras, India, and follows the lives of the members of the Chacko family, three years after their seemingly untroubled 17 year old son Unni inexplicably plunged head first from the balcony of their apartment and died.  Father Ousep, mother Mariamma, and youngest son Thoma are left to deal with hard, seemingly unanswerable questions as a result of Unni’s passing.  Did the teenager willingly kill himself?  Why didn’t he leave a note behind explaining his action?  When a new piece of potential evidence arrives in the mail, it sets into motion a series of events that forces the family to reexamine and reevaluate everything they thought they knew about their boy.

Ousep, a once promising, now broken and alcoholic reporter, takes on the case as only a parent can, acting relentless in his pursuit to track down and question any and everyone who may have known his son, even in passing, but he seems to be getting stonewalled at nearly every turn.  As his investigation continues to slowly unfold down strange, potentially disturbing new paths, it quickly becomes clear that Joseph’s novel is about much more than a simple mystery.

How well do we really know the people closest to us and how can we qualify something we believe as being a factual truth when every individual has the ability to perceive the same event in a slightly different way?  Joseph’s novel takes a brilliant turn towards the philosophical in a quest to extrapolate greater universal understanding from the passing of a single child.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used by mental health professionals the world over, depression and delusion are both definable, treatable illnesses that seemingly any member of the population can become afflicted with.  But doesn’t the opposite have to also be true?  Shouldn’t a counter state of overwhelming happiness also exist?  After all, how can you have bad without good or right without wrong?  Why has no one dedicated the time and resources necessary to exploring the root cause of happiness in individuals?

That might sound silly at first, but when you stop and to think about it, it becomes more likely that those who have a clear, unencumbered vision of life, and those that claim to be closest to understanding the secrets of the universe-the secrets of God himself-are the ones who are potentially the most damaged among us.

While the traditional definitions of mental illness do play a rather large role in the novel, surprisingly they are not its focal point.  What Joseph seems to want to state the case for here is the idea that a perfectly average, seemingly mentally unencumbered person is in fact just as ill.  Is it such a stretch to imagine that most of population is suffering from the horrible effects of sanity?  Does this sanity inhibit the majority from seeing greater truths that are lurking all around them?  And what of language?  Is it a woefully inadequate trapping devised solely to stop us from understanding the larger world around us?  How, for example, do you describe the color red to someone who has never seen it before?  Just where do we turn when our comprehension exceeds our ability to explain?

Make no mistake, while steeped in the philosophical, the novel does offer up a definitive answer with regards to the central mystery it presents.  The events that precipitate young Unni’s death will become all to tragically clear at the story’s conclusion.

Designed to challenge the reader with delicate, yet probing questions regarding both morality and spirituality, The Illicit Happiness of Other People is the first must-read novel of 2013.  Joseph’s characters effortlessly fly off the page and into the reader’s heart as they struggle to come to terms with how to move forward in a world that’s now forever missing a key piece.  Joseph’s language is just as beautiful as his subjects, and in a world that has become increasingly obsessed with focusing on studying those we’ve labelled “damaged” or “dysfunctional,” Illicit Happiness becomes a welcome reminder that the opposite side of the spectrum can be just as interesting, and perhaps surprisingly to some, far more appealing ground to explore.

:: Aaron

The_Illicit_Happiness_Of_Other_People ★★★★½
The Illicit Happiness of Other People
By Manu Joseph
W. W. Norton & Company
340 Pages
ISBN 9780393338621

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.

  • Jackie Hirst

    Started this one today– good stuff so fa!

    • Typographical Era

      Yay! Easily my favorite read of 2013 thus far!