Sunday, May 4, 2008

Too Much To Tell

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express.


Hanif Kureishi’s sixth novel is a long, sometimes engaging and more than occasionally satirical work that explores London life in the era of Thatcher, refracted through the prism of the present. Here, Kureishi returns to the territory of his first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, and his first script, My Beautiful Launderette, as well as explores the effect of ageing on the passions (found in some of his later work such as The Body). As such, Something to Tell You embraces, in the author’s words, “psychoanalysis, pop, race, Islamic fundamentalism, love, the vagaries of middle-age desire and regret”.

The story is told by Jamal Khan, middle-aged psychoanalyst and unabashed Freudian, who ranges freely over his present and past. The characters in Jamal’s orbit include his friend Henry, a film and theatre director of some repute; his sister Miriam, with whom Henry starts a liaison; his estranged wife Josephine, who lives with their son, Rafi; his boyhood companions Valentin and Wolf; and the love of his life, Ajita, whom he meets as a philosophy student in a London university.

Kureishi’s manner of presenting these characters reminds one of Virginia Woolf’s diary entries while composing Mrs Dalloway. She writes of trying to dig out “beautiful caves behind my characters”, caves that “shall connect and come to daylight at the present moment”. Though Kureishi’s ambitions are obviously dissimilar, he digs deep caves behind his characters too, and makes sure that we see far back into each one. Unfortunately, this frequently makes the novel a criss-crossing web of desires without a central presence. It’s far more taut and interesting when Jamal takes centre-stage, such as in the account of his trip to Pakistan with Miriam.

Kureishi is, of course, too skilled a raconteur to simply present us with great slabs of character interaction. The engine of the plot is a hot-headed escapade involving Jamal, Valentin and Wolf, with unfortunate consequences for Ajita’s family. How this is resolved is the climax that Something to Tell You moves towards.

The novel teems with activity and incident, most of them drawn from the swinging London of the Seventies: Rolling Stones concerts, soirees attended by Angela Carter and visits to Derek Jarman’s place after nights at the Groucho Club. Such is the territory that Kureishi finds most resonant, and it is effectively mined here, much of it for comic effect. Here’s a Soho party in the London of the present, for example: “Expensive dogs sniffed the guests’ crotches….Be-ringed queens from the East End mingled with upper class young men in priceless suits, pop stars, painters, Labour Party researchers and…a couple of black Premiership footballers – one in a white fur coat – who stirred more excitement than the pop stars.” Fans of Kureishi’s earlier work will be quick to spot another character that turns up in this party -- Omar, from My Beautiful Launderette, now transformed into the somewhat unpleasant Lord Ali, a media magnate with strong opinions.

Towards the end, the novel’s farcical side becomes broader, with Kureishi focusing on the metropolis’ seamier attractions: expensive hookers and underground clubs catering to every perversion, for instance. The 7/7 bombings also feature, with characters offering opinions on how this will affect lives. These attempts to be all-embracing make the going a trifle tedious. Had this cocktail been composed of fewer ingredients, it would have been more potent.

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