Some time ago I joined a Facebook group of UK book bloggers. You know what it’s like these days – there is no activity which doesn’t have a social media group to give you help, advice and general support. You can probably work out when I joined the group (and started taking their very sensible advice) because that’s when I started posting more regularly and generally organised my reading and reviewing. One of the types of post that comes up fairly regularly in the group is the ‘blog tour’ post – they seemed fairly self-explanatory but when I saw a post asking for contributors to a tour recently I decided to give it a go. Mostly out of nosiness to know how the whole thing works….It turns out it is pretty much like any other book review but to a set time scale (I bet you could have told me that yourself). The time scale was my main issue with this review – I was sure I’d have plenty of time to read, digest and review the book (which isn’t hugely long at less than 250 pages ) but I’d rather forgotten that I also have a job and a social life as well as a reading one. Oops. Still, a couple of days off spent reading and taking notes solidly and I’m ready to go.
This is a novel about what it is like to be an outsider. At first you notice the obvious ones – Kulwant, the central character, caught between her traditional Indian upbringing and England in the 60s, 70s and 80s; Shirley, who marries Kulwant’s son; Rani/Rosalind the teenage rebel who seems to run away from anyone who tries to forge any kind of relationship with her – but as you progress it seems that everyone in the book is an outsider of one sort or another. They don’t fit in to their families, their culture or the society they have to live in and they often tend to blame those who they see as the ‘insiders’ (although we can also see the difficulties those lucky people have). Most of them are angry or sad about this status – although the wonderfully vibrant Bahadur, the Punjabi punk, revels in it.
This is not an easy book to read. The language is often quite dense and almost jarring – like the poetry which bursts out of Michael, Kulwant’s erstwhile first love – and I did get a sense of storytelling in a tradition which is not mine. In this it had some similarities to books like Naseem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, books where you start to get a feel for the narrative forms of India and other South Asian cultures. It took me a while to warm to this (I read primarily for story rather than poetry) but, I have to say, the characters eventually drew me in.
Kulwant (Kuli) was the character who did the most for me and the book’s setting in the 70s and 80s helped me to understand her. I was at University in the 80s so there is a sense of familiarity in the gender and race politics which dominate Kuli’s life. It wasn’t something I had directly participated in (I’m not one for demos, too scary for me) but I was struck by the way that it was her involvement in this world which alienated her family. I think we are given a fairly chilling view, at times, of the realities of mainstream British politics for women of colour. It was awful, by the look of Kuli’s experiences, and I wonder if, perhaps, Naz Shah would feel it is not much better now.
Kulwant spends a lot of this book pretending to be a much older woman than she actually is. In a way, I guess, she feels her life is as over as if she were in her eighties – at odds with her family and adrift from both the politics which were so important to her and the lover she met through those politics. The message I think she has worked out by the end is that what is most important in life is to work who you are. Once you are able to stop worrying about how you are different you can concentrate on how to be ‘you’. And, as importantly, you allow others to be themselves too….