The Various Routes and Roots in Janice Pariat’s “Everything the Light Touches”

Mingling fact with fiction and traversing through centuries, Janice Pariat’s novel Everything the Light Touches is a poignant read on how our identities are connected to each other and our natural surroundings. It asks us “not only to see new things but to see things in new ways.”

The novel connects ecology with history, weaving it together with scientific knowledge about the natural world to etch out ways to look at what it means to be human, the ways we are connected through space and time and our relationship with the natural world both locally and globally. The novel moves in a non-linear fashion across centuries, focusing on four travelers whose routes are interconnected like tangled roots.

Pariat masterfully draws her reader’s attention to how human beings are connected to their natural surroundings, which form a part of their intimate spaces both geographically and metaphysically, and the ways in which these individuals develop their identities and make sense of the socio-political and cultural context of which they are a part. 

At its core, the novel is about journeying to see “commonplace” things in a “new light,” a necessity not just for the protagonists in the text but for the human species at large, reiterating the eternal story of humans rediscovering themselves.

The novel opens with Shai’s journey back to her hometown Meghalaya from Delhi in India. A “place that falls off the map.” A state named using a language the people do not speak or associate with. The novel’s first section starts with Shai waiting to board a flight back to her hometown Shillong at the Delhi airport. The readers get to understand her concerns and why she is encouraged by her parents to leave behind the turbulent local settings and set off to the big capital city to be free of these outbreaks of violence. We get a glimpse of how the political, cultural and social forms of violence are interconnected in a place considered peripheral, even within an independent ‘mainland’ India. The questions of its history with the colonial state, the skirmishes with Assam from which it was carved out, the infighting and local tensions within various tribal groups of the place and with the forces at large against the haphazard exploitation of the natural resources are weaved together like an intricate web-like structure that highlight what it means to be indigenous in a postcolonial nation-state that treats its own borderland regions with a colonial attitude. This ties into the question of what it means to be an Indian or a Khasi, and how Shai goes about making sense of her memories to put together a fragmented but holistic identity. 

The author’s acumen in developing complex narrative styles shines as she braids the personal with the local. Following a route inspired by Shai’s memories of her childhood nanny’s illness, she comes to terms with what it means to be at home and explores it through the fables and traditions that sustain the locals in Meghalaya.

In the next section, we journey to Edwardian England to meet Evelyn, who is more interested in the study of botany than finding and pursuing eligible suitors for herself, and who is frustrated by the lack of opportunities in her country. She boards a ship, taking inspiration from German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s radical thinking and journey, and she travels to India, intending to explore the lesser-known and mysterious forests of the Lower Himalayas. Her pursuit lays bare the inadequacies inherent in Western sciences in studying the natural world. 

Interspersing these two fictional narratives are two historically factual ones adapted by Pariat to develop a kaleidoscopic story-telling method wherein narrative fiction is braided with historical fiction. While one tells the tale of Goethe’s 1787 tour of Italy, at the end of which he would write his first scientific work, Metamorphosis of Plants, the other narrates Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’s famous expedition to Lapland in 1732, which would result in his book Flora Lapponica. In perhaps the most creative section of the text, Pariat tells the tale of Linnaeus’ expedition to Lapland in verse, poetry and prose. It provides the readers with an interval of sorts, serving as a middle ground in the palindrome-type narrative structure where the desires of the other three converge: finding solace in one’s roots, undertaking a journey to new lands in pursuit of scientific knowledge and striking the right balance between philosophy and modern science for a fuller understanding of our existence.

Narrative structure is a strong point in Pariat’s work. Everything the Light Touches has multiple narrators working to fragment the linearity of time and space for the personal stories of the protagonists and the structure of the novel. Shai’s story is set in the present and narrated in first person. Evelyn’s and Goethe’s stories are told in the third person by an omniscient narrator who is not only aware of the geographical routes they travel but also the routes of their thoughts. Finally, Linnaeus’ section is a series of free verse poems that hark towards the interconnectedness of histories and fields of study. He was a poet who happened to be a naturalist. 

The novel’s metaphysical questions about identity and interconnectedness find a possible answer in the ways of Goethean science that advocated a more subjective and personal approach, especially to botany. In this age of the Anthropocene, when the relationship between humans and nature has turned irrevocably belligerent, the novel makes the reader rethink the binaries of us versus them, past versus present, local versus global, and how they all journey together and in parts to form fragments of an individual’s identity and thereby create an interconnected root system between them all – the inevitable journey that we must all make to our roots to accept and appreciate our individual and interconnected existences.  

Everything the Light Touches
By Janice Pariat
Published: October 25, 2022