C.P. Surendran writes beautifully, there can be no two opinions about that. So beautifully that you read his words slowly, savouring them, rolling them over your mind’s tongue, letting them slip very slowly down your word-thirsty throat. Whether he’s describing the hallucinatory lushness of Kerala’s landscape or talking about a life and mind that’s crumbling at the edges, his control of language, his choice of words and images, his reaching for the unlikeliest simile that will surprise but not jar, all display an exceptional poise for a prose writer. But Surendran is also a poet and it is his poetic sensibilities—the capacity to see and hear in ways that others don’t and then represent these stimuli in startling ways—that give his prose such power and beauty. And though you notice his images and his words, this is not writing that draws attention to itself through either flash or flourish. It has a tensile strength that bears the reader aloft, carrying her safely over the eddies and whirlpools of the plot.

If only Surendran’s third novel were worthy of the words in which it is so seductively written. The mysteriously named Hadal is interesting, a tale of international espionage, loves lost and found, desire and power. It’s based on a true story, one that I vaguely remember, not that the veracity of the tale should have anything to do with the merits or demerits of the book itself. Miriam Zacharias, the centre of the story, is a luscious young woman from the Maldives. She has lost her family in the tsunami and at the moment we meet her, she has resigned as a minor security officer assigned to the president of the island nation and has gently exited her failing marriage, all so that she can pursue her dream of writing a novel. She comes to Kerala, where she seeks out a former lover, Roy, who happens to be a senior scientist in the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). She also runs into a disgruntled policeman, bearing the unlikely name of Honey Kumar, who has been banished from Delhi for a routine misdemeanour involving a bribe. These three people find themselves embroiled in an increasingly sordid tale of love and lust and power and intrigue, driven largely by Honey Kumar’s overwrought mind and underserviced libido, which coagulates stickily into an international spy scandal. The time and place for these lives to converge in the most unfortunate way is the visit of the Maldivian president to his ancestral village in Kerala. And when you learn that the president has a double, you know that the plot of this novel is in fine shape.

There is nothing wrong with this novel—the plot works, the characters are pretty comfortable in their skins, the back stories are coherent and in the main, necessary additions, the oppressive landscapes of Delhi and Kerala are viscerally felt. The book is firmly located in a physical, political and emotional space that Surendran knows well, well enough for him to use it as an undulating, sometimes enveloping backdrop rather than as a conspicuous banner of literary occupation and conquest. There is even some black humour. But there is also something that never quite lifts, never quite meets the soaring arcs that its words describe. Perhaps Surendran does not care for his characters enough—he seems fond enough of Miriam, and Honey Kumar certainly has his backing, but there is a cold appraisal of their persons and their aspirations rather than an empathetic participation in their lives. Ram Mohan seems to hold the key to Surendran’s darker instincts, but he is too marginal to the plot to be anything other than a truly interesting aside. Surendran’s first novel, Iron Harvest, shows that he is capable of a deep (if tormented) involvement with the characters that he creates and that is all the more reason to notice the absence of this crucial element here. Perhaps Hadal is also undermined by Gramsci and Marcuse, who pop up in the most unexpected places. Surendran’s authorial voice, which appears regularly, is articulate and impassioned with regard to the state of the world and the perfidy of humans, so the appearance of Marxist social theorists in the lives and thoughts of police officers is a bit odd.

There is also an unseemly haste with which the plot devolves, catalysed, we learn to our astonishment, by a dog. How unfortunate that the pace changes just when we have persuaded ourselves to lie back and float in the backwaters, even in turbid sea whose returning tides keep the book buoyant. The last chapters rush and tumble to the climax, reflecting perhaps, the author’s urgency to get on and get out. The ends tie up neatly but the threads have been cut too short.

Arshia Sattar is an author, translator and co-founder of the writer’s residency Sangam House.

To read an excerpt from the book, click here.

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