Babu Patel came to London as a young man in 1968. His plan was to take classes in the evening while working for a cement importer during the day. The classes and practical experience would prepare him to help his father in his paint business back in India, where he would return and marry Falguni, his approved sweetheart back home. All that changed when Babu met Siân. Originally from a village in Wales, Siân was in London to pursue a new life. She and Babu immediately fell in love, and their love persists despite Babu’s parents’ schemes to keep them apart.
The first part of this novel by Tishani Doshi, which traces Babu and Siân’s romance, is gorgeous. A poet before writing this novel, Doshi’s language captures the beauty and chaos of first love. The pair feel right only with each other, but they’re smart enough to be afraid of their feelings, even when they can’t give them up. Here, for instance, is Siân’s thinking as she tells her parents about her plan to move to India to be with Babu:
What was she going to say to them this time? That she’d be back after two years? That she was going to marry a man she’d known for six months? A man whose family had tricked him into going home and were none too pleased about Siân’s existence on the planet. A man she couldn’t imagine living without, but with whom she hadn’t been able to share her fears. She hadn’t told him, for instance, that she got jolted out of bed some nights, as though a charge of electricity were being passed through her– thinking what if, what if it is all a terrible mistake? What if she went to him and regretted everything? What if he tried to show her his life and she just couldn’t see it? What if there came a day when she no longer lived inside of him, and she had to return, and there was no place to return to? Wouldn’t it be awful to be saddled together? To have made such a hue and cry, only to let it go? And were they both too proud anyway, to allow people their sanctimonious we-told-you-sos: We knew it wouldn’t work out in the end. Life chalk and cheese. No chance of that lasting.
If the story had continued along its early trajectory, or if it had been a novella made up of only the first section of the book, I’d be sinking its praises without much reservation. I thoroughly enjoyed the early chapters. But as the book moves into Babu and Siân’s married life, it loses both momentum and focus, attempting to become a multi-generational family epic but lacking the level of detail that makes such epics compelling.
The final two-thirds of the book deal with the Patel family’s life in India and, later, Babu and Siân’s daughter Bean’s life in England. There are some good moments, but the book loses its focus on the couple who drove the story in the first place. They appear almost entirely on the edges of the story. That might be okay if the narrative had shifted entirely to the lives of their two daughters, but whole chapters are devoted to members of the extended family that we were given little reason to care about (and some reason to dislike) in the early part of the book. There’s also not much of a narrative through line, like a romance, to keep the pages turning. Frankly, I lost interest.
The story picks up a bit when Bean goes to England, but it never quite returns to form. In addition, it’s in this section that I noticed Doshi’s tendency to hide pivotal moments in between chapters. We learn of a pregnancy when morning sickness is mentioned, almost as an aside. This is especially frustrating in a book that is so committed to detailing characters’ inner lives, and the previous character had been agonizing over a major decision in which her pregnancy would have been a factor. It’s a piece of authorial withholding that seems to exist only for shock value. That would bother me less in a thriller, but a book about people’s inner lives needs to be more transparent about what’s happening in those inner lives.
Published in 2010 and longlisted for the Orange Prize, this is Doshi’s only novel so far, although she has written a couple of volumes of poetry and a collection of poems, stories, and essays. I think she may be a writer whose talents are best suited to shorter forms. The problem with this book is not with the sentences or the characters but with the plotting, which doesn’t stand up over the long haul.