This is the first of my Booker longlist titles, and there’s no point in my pretending I would have read it anyway. With this dreary cover, equal parts chicklit and ethnilit, not to mention the uninspiring title, there’s not a chance I would even have picked it up. So the question is, can the listing of a book by a prize jury bring reading enjoyment where none is expected?
The answer is yes. Gifted is Nikita Lalwani’s debut, and while it may owe a little to other prominent debuts of recent years – Brick Lane and White Teeth seem lightly imprinted in its pages – it’s an achievement in itself.
It details the childhood and youth of Rumi, an Indian girl growing up in Cardiff in the 1980s. Her parents had an arranged marriage: father Mahesh is an academic, determined to ensure that Rumi makes her mark in British society, while mother Shreene feels a conflict between her birth and adopted homes, reflecting on small differences in culture (such as the tendency for Western men to have less hair on their faces, and Western women to have less hair elsewhere).
The language sometimes has that identikit colour and richness we associate with Indian literature, but there is a lightness and humour too, such as when ten-year-old Rumi reflects on telling her schoolfriends that she’s going to visit India:
She’d get up and say, ‘Yes, I have an announcement. I’m moving to a country where people laugh and have fun and aren’t cruel and rude and don’t make a joke of you, and where they are more intelligent than people here, especially at maths like me. And I’m never coming back. And also, by the way, my mum and dad say the British people stole all these stones from people in India, the rubies and diamonds in the precious buildings, before they stopped ruling it, and that represents how they stole the sparkle out of Indian people’s lives. So it doesn’t make much sense of me to live here, to be honest, because I don’t agree with it. I’m going back to where I came from.’
She knew that she would have to make sure she was in a place where she could look at Simon Bridgeman and Christopher Palmer during this last bit, to give them a signal so they didn’t take it personally. Or maybe she’d warn them in advance, so that she shock of what she was about to reveal, about their own history as British people, didn’t upset them too much.
Lalwani has an ability to touch on otherwise hackneyed issues like this very gracefully, and does it again, for example, in a scene where Rumi’s father and his friend discuss the film Gandhi, and which in its own low-key way, added to my understanding of Indian partition almost as much as Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown did.
But Gifted is clearly a debut and not always so assured. The story arc – of Rumi’s development as a ‘gifted child’ from maths and chess prodigy through to early Oxford entrance – occasionally feels too pre-planned, not coming through a real understanding of the character, and the ending seems rushed, reminiscent of Hari Kunzru’s Transmission. I would have liked to know more of Mahesh and Shreene, who seemed to me more interesting than Rumi. Lalwani also has a weakness for 1980s pop culture references, presumably to remind us of when all this is happening. Although they were well attuned to my own childhood in that period, they were a little cloying, and I can imagine people much younger or older finding them distracting. Still, if it’s good enough for David Mitchell…