[NB: This post brought to you by an unexpected thunder storm, the new Loreena Mckennitt album and an absolutely cracking pun of a title, which I spent the better part of my walk home from work germinating. Genius.]
'Golden Shona had been conceived with a lie, and was born in a liar's house, into an an inevitable understanding that it was always better to comfort or conceal with a lie than to hurt or expose with the truth. When older, and finding herself telling meaningless benign fibs about why she was late for work, or falsely admiring someone's new haircut, she would be unable to explain whether this need to lie was something innate or something taught to her from infancy... Whether its origins were in nature or nurture, her childhood was a battle ground on which truth never conquered, and in which she knew it was an ironic fallacy that truth would out.'
Two of the best and most surprising novels I read last year - Disobedience by Naomi Alderman and The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin - were on the three-book shortlist for the Orange New Writer's Award, a £10,000 bursury for debut fiction writers. Both deserved to have been on the main Orange shortlist - thematically ambitious, stylistically rich and desperately accomplished, they were far above the anticipated standard. Roopa Farooki's first novel Bitter Sweets, nominated for this year's award, doesn't stand close scrutiny with either of them. A light, fluffy romantic comedy of a book about the lies families tell each other and written in a basic, work-a-day prose, it is neither great nor penetrating literature. Packed to the gills with daft coincidences, silly plot twists, unlikely meetings and farcical revelations, it couldn't be more obviously itself. But. Its heart is so firmly on its sleeve, and its good-humour and generous nature so clear, that it proves almost impossible to dislike. Incredulous and with eyebrows raised, I rattled through it with a giddy, guileless pleasure glad of its enthusiasm, its irrepressible hopefulness of spirit.
It begins, in the 1960s, with the energetic farce of a comedy of manners. Henna Rub is thirteen years old, the illiterate, spoilt daughter of an ambitious Bengali shopkeeper and soon to be married. Her husband-to-be is Ricky (Rashid) Karim, an Oxbridge-educated romantic from Calcutta, tricked into the match by the Rubs' (and Henna's) duplicity - he believes himself to be in love with an athletic intellectual 17 year old, who loves Byron and speaks impeccable English. In reality Henna can barely read at all, and has only cribbed stock English phrases to be pronounced on cue: 'I Think It's Simply Wonderful' and 'Good Gracious, No' and 'Would You Like Some More Tea?' Ricky (who is clearly a litle dim himself) doesn't notice anything much amiss with her until their wedding night when, Romantic verse in hand, he comes a-wooing without success:
Ricky-Rashid had no more weapons in his amorous armoury - his flower was dischareged and in pieces on the floor, and his book of Byron's verse, which he was sure Henna has said was Simply Wonderful in a previous meeting, was being summarily dismissed. With nothing else coming to mind, he decided to try his luck by pressing on with the book. 'So why don't you read the next two lines yourself? They say everything that I think about you.'
He passed the book to Henna, who took it unwillingly. She looked at the incoherent black jumble of text for a couple of moments and knowledgeably nodded, before saying in her little-used English, 'Ricky, I Think It's Simply Wonderful.'
'But how could you read it upside down?' he asked. Something was wrong, very wrong indeed.
The marriage revealed as a sham and his wife as a pubescent con-artist, Ricky is stuck in loveless and rather lonely limbo. Relinquishing his intellectual pretensions, he accepts that he is Just Rashid and, rather than pursuing a post-graduate career, mismanages his family farms in the Punjab and becomes an accountant. Twenty years later and the only things he has to show for his adult life are a plump, vapid wife (Henna becomes quite the socialite), a vaguely successful career and a single daughter, Shona. She, being very much her own woman, disappoints him by marrying Parvez, a Pakistani restauranteur and eloping to live in poverty in London above a sweet-shop.
From here on in, Farooki's narrative gallops off at speed in increasingly silly directions: Shona and Parvez borrow £15,000 from Rashid for private IVF treatment (when Shona proves infertile) and have twin boys, the playfully named Omar and Sharif. Rashid himself takes a new, high-powered job in England - partly, no doubt, to escape Henna, who has embarked on an affair with his younger brother - and meets a demure English Rose, the ridiculously named Verity Trueman. Before long he has gotten her pregnant (the first of two unlikely late-life pregnancies in the novel) and married her, bigamously, in a traditional white wedding in Sussex. For the next 20 years, while Omar, Sharif and Rashid's (ridiculously named) daughter, Candida, grow up, Rashid lives a double life flying between England and Bangladesh; Shona and Parvez fall out of love; and Henna sings and dances in amateur Gilbert and Sullivan productions, the shining light of her social circle.
It all begins to feel like a cut/paste hydra - think East is East + Love Actually + Zadie Smith's White Teeth - as Sharif and Omar come to terms with being British Asians, start a rock band, go to university (in Oxford, of course) and hook up with the local girls (or boys, in Omar's case). Sooner or later its inevitable that one of these girls will be Candida Trueman-Karim...and that the truth will, finally, out.
Which, I think you'll agree, is an awful lot of ground to cover in 350 pages of chunky text. Farooki thinks nothing of dashing her narrative through the years at a frenetic pace, hop, skipping and jumping to the parts of the story she finds the most compelling. Her impatience to be *in the moment* with her characters as they fall in love (this she especially likes) or confront one anothers' lies or reveal secrets, is all-consuming and doesn't allow for the languid richness of which prose narrative is capable. Everything happens at the pace of the reader's (and the writer's) hungry id: no sooner have you thought 'I wish Omar would hurry up and kiss that boy...', and he does; no sooner have you wondered: 'I wonder how this will this turn out...' and all has been revealed. I imagine this perpetual movement forward is common amongst debut novelists, so eager to get where their going - in Farooki's case, to the happy ending - and so excited to write their core scenes. More experienced, and more ambitious, writers resist the impulse, rein themselves in and make you wait - patience, in such matters at least, really is a virtue.
Undoubtedly, Farooki's characterisation suffers in the rush and shove of her story. Her key players - Rashid, Shona and Omar - are relatively well-fleshed and the narrator's eye often settles on them for extended periods. So we get rounded glimpses, like:
'In Bangladesh, he was Just Rashid, Henna's absentee henna-pecked husband, a rarely missed dullard who travelled a lot on business. Ricky would believe that all his time as a Rashid, his twenty-five years of married life to Henna, had been illusory, his training ground, his purgatory, lightened only by the birth of his daughter. All that time he had simply been waiting for real life to begin.'
'Omar wished, not for the first time, that he was someone else. Someone like Sharif, who was confident enough to be himself, and was loved and liked for being who he was. Omar felt he, by comparison, was a faker, a dissembler. He had carved out a niche for himself, created an identity in reaction to Sharif. If Sharif cared nothing for books or academia, then Omar could care for nothing else. If Sharif was to be the rebel, then Omar could be the model student.... he found it easy to be quiet, clean, attentive, punctual and rigorous in handing in well-prepared work. He discovered that being a model student meant that everybody mistook him for a bright student...'
There is no real subtlety to them, but at least they bear the semblance of living and breathing. Farooki doesn't do so well with her second tier characters, some of whom are little more than a name, see-cliche-attached. The obvious example is Verity Trueman - could the novel's only honest player have any other name? She is what she is: an analogy for something pure and comforting and, well, truthful. Not a person at all since she has almost no conflict and no independent emotions. (Incidentally, and for those for whom the reference makes sense, she bears more than a passing resemblance to the BuffyBot.) Similarly her daughter, Candida, who represents everything, erm, candid and well-meaning. One can't help but feel that what Rashid wanted from married bliss was his very own Stepford Wife and Daughter. Henna, with her selfish whining, is refreshingly human in comparison.
The men in Shona's life - her husband Parvez and, later, her lover - are also one-dimensional in that they play a role, nothing more. And role-playing is vital in a novel that frequently relies on contrived set-piece events: the revelation that gives Rashid a heart-attack and brings both of his families rushing to his bedside, narrowly avoiding each other in a sleight of hand worthy of Hollywood; and the turn of fate that leads to Sharif and Candida falling in love, and then discovering their real identities. The neatness of the whole proves satisfyingly cosmetic, in the short term at least, but quickly looses its charm, and the final happiness of the resolution - the way in which all the lies are reconciled into truth - has a plastic feel. A romantic comedy feel. The thematic load is overworked, pithy as a cliche: telling the truth is healthier, physically and psychologically, than telling lies. The weight of the rest - being Asian in Britain, homosexuality, adultery - simply acts as a function of the fun and farce, part of the fuss and froth.
It is hopeful though, and bright. And if it isn't Orange material (which it isn't), then at least the boys get the girls (or boys) in the end, and everybody else does a dance and smiles on through.