“Two Lives” by Vikram Seth

This is a heartrending new book, the story of a marriage and the story of two lives, from the author of the international best-selling novel A Suitable Boy.

Shanti Behari Seth was born on the eighth day of the eighth month in the eighth year of the twentieth century; he died two years before its close. He was brought up in India in the apparently vigorous but dying Raj and was sent by his family in the 1930s to Berlin, though he could not speak a word of German, to study medicine and dentistry. It was here, before he migrated to Britain, that Shanti’s path first crossed that of his future wife.

Helga Gerda Caro, known to everyone as “Henny” was also born in 1908, in Berlin, to a Jewish family, cultured, patriotic, and intensely German. When the family decided to take Shanti as a lodger, Henny’s first reaction was, “Don’t take the black man!” But a friendship flowered, and when Henny fled Hitler’s Germany for England just one month before war broke out, she was met at Victoria Station by the only person in the country she knew: Shanti.

Vikram Seth has woven together their astonishing story, which recounts the arrival into this childless couple’s lives of their great-nephew from India, the teenage student Vikram Seth. The result is an extraordinary tapestry of India, the Third Reich and the Second World War, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, postwar Germany and 1970s Britain.

Two Lives is both a history of a violent century seen through the eyes of two survivors and an intimate portrait of their friendship, marriage, and abiding yet complex love. Part biography, part memoir, part meditation on our times, this is the true tale of two remarkable lives, a masterful telling from one of our greatest living writers.

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