After two short story collections, Peter Ho Davies was named one of Granta’s best young British novelists in 2003. His debut novel more than lives up to that reputation. The Welsh Girl is set, obviously, in Wales. The girl in question is 17-year-old Esther, who swigs pints at the village pub in the Snowdonian Hills where she lives. She longs to see the world, but is frustrated by circumstances. Two other characters—Rotherham, a German Jewish refugee working in intelligence, who is dispatched to interrogate Hitler’s real-life former deputy Rudolf Hess, and the gentle German corporal Karsten, incarcerated in a POW camp—make her story complete. Ho Davies successfully blends a languid style of writing with strong control over plot and structure, which makes the novel a treat. Look out particularly for his rich evocations of the Welsh summer, where “froth fills the air like blossom”.
The Welsh Girl: By Peter Ho Davies, Houghton Mifflin, 352 pages, Rs633.
The personal and the political meet seamlessly in Mohsin Hamid’s first novel, Moth Smoke, and in his impressive follow-up to that, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, through the story of Changez, a young Pakistani. Told in a single monologue, Changez comes across as naive, sinister and sad in turns. He tells his story to a nameless American who sits across from him at a Lahore cafe. Educated at Princeton, employed by a top valuation firm in New York, Changez was living the American dream, earning more money than he thought possible and in love with a beautiful, wealthy and mentally scarred girl. The larger backdrop is the 9/11 tragedy, after which Changez returns to his homeland. The topicality of Hamid’s subject and his subtle, insightful and racy prose make him a strong contender.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist: By Mohsin Hamid, Harcourt, 192 pages, Rs295.
Perils of love
Clearly the strongest contender for the prize, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach has wooed readers all over the world with a beautifully told sad story—something he’s proved to be a master of. Edward and Florence, 23 and 22, respectively, marry and check into a hotel on the Dorset coast for their honeymoon. They are both virgins, both apprehensive about what’s next. They are on the cusp of an ordinary marital life, but are unable to accept it. Edward’s sensitivity keeps him from being obvious about his desires but he is getting anxious and, finally, the reckoning is upon Florence. McEwan is adept at crafting that defining moment after which nothing remains the same. Later, McEwan muses about Edward: “Love and patience—if only he had them both at once—would surely have seen them both through.”
On Chesil Beach: By Ian McEwan, Nan A. Talese, 166 pages, Rs547.
West meets East
Yet another coming-of-age debut from a young NRI writer. London-based Nikita Lalwani’s protagonist is 14-year-old Rumika Vasi, who struggles to fulfil her mathematical gifts, and her family’s demands on them, while also finding friendship and romance. Rumi, labelled “gifted” in kindergarten, is subjected to home teaching by her father, Mahesh, a professor. The goal: to be accepted at Oxford by the age of 14. Rumi, however, longs to be in India, where she feels at home among her extended family. Lalwani does a decent job of portraying myriad cultural contradictions that lace the characters, but Gifted is no eye-opener.
Gifted: By Nikita Lalwani, Penguin India, 288 pages, Rs395.
“I used to be human once. So I’m told. I don’t remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being...” Ever since he was a child, Animal, the main character in Indra Sinha’s novel Animal’s People, has been walking on his fours, after his body was damaged by one night’s catastrophic events snowballed by an American chemical corporation. Not yet 20, he lives a hand-to-mouth existence with his dog Jara and spends his nights fantasizing about Nisha, the daughter of a local musician. Sinha’s narrative has a dreamlike quality which is its biggest achievement. Sinha deftly portrays a dark world illuminated only by flashes of joy and lunacy. He challenges the readers to rethink what it is to be human.
Animal’s People: By Indra Sinha, Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, Rs595.
This year’s Booker shortlist will be announced in September and the winner will be announced in October.