Vikram Seth

A Suitable Boy

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

The thought of embarking on reading a novel of almost 1500 pages may put you off, but if so it would be a pity. Vikram Seth's book is a delight, at once touching, humorous, and widely panoramic. It is really several novels in one. In one way it is the story of the search for a suitable husband for Lata, conducted in semi-concert by Lata herself and her mother, who are a generation apart in their ideas about arranged marriages yet come eventually to agree. But this narrative recedes into the background for long stretches, as we follow the fortunes of various members of three families, including Lata's own, in the years immediately after the partition of India. Two of the families are Hindu, one is Muslim, and the three are linked to one another by marriage or friendship. There are the Kapoors, whose most prominent member, the charming if rather feckless Maan Kapoor, falls deeply in love with a Muslim singer and courtesan. There are the Khans, who are Muslim, and whose son Firoz is a close friend of Maan's, a friendship which eventually results in near-tragedy. And there are the Chatterjis, a family of brilliant and highly Anglicised young men and womem: Amit, the poet and novelist, Dipankar the would-be mystic, and Meenakshi and Kakoli, two beautiful and amoral sisters who continually exchange verse couplets with each other in a sort of verbal tennis match of wit.

Politics runs through the story as well, and Nehru himself appears occasionally; For me these sections were less successful and I was tempted to skip some of the set speeches. Another minor problem at times was a certain vagueness about which language the characters were speaking. This matters, because the characters themselves make a lot of it; Lata's pompous brother Arun, for example, who is a yuppy before his time, is scornful of Haresh, Lata's suitor, because his English is less than perfect (although, in a delightfully ironic passage, Arun is eventually forced to admit that he has never been to England while Haresh has lived and studied there). Mostly, however, Seth manages these linguistic transitions adroitly.

Long though this book is, I wouldn't wish it shorter. In fact, it's so rich that when I reached the end I felt like rereading it; and I'm sure I shall.

%T A Suitable Boy
%A Vikram Seth
%I Phoenix
%C London
%D 1993
%G ISBN 1 85799 9
%P 1474 pp
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