Janet TAY reviews Hanif KUREISHI's Something to Tell You
LOVE AND LUST IN LONDON
Review by JANET TAY
This month’s literary focus offers a picture of London painted colourfully by the man who presaged the city’s first wave of immigrant writing in the 1990s.
SOMETHING TO TELL YOU
By Hanif Kureishi
(Faber & Faber, 352pp)
SOMETHING TO TELL YOU is the confessional of a psychoanalyst who spends his life listening, not talking.
Jamal, a middle-aged “collector of sighs,” as his friend dubs him, is full to bursting with secrets. Not just his patients’ but also his own, and the unravelling of his confession reveals his eventful life of regrets and passion, and one act of violence that haunts him still.
The mélange of images, emotions, and larger-than-life characters that is Something to Tell You is a sequel of sorts to Hanif Kureishi’s explosive, semi-autobiographical debut novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, except it’s set in the city. In fact, Kureishi has been quoted (in the February issue of Time Out London as saying, “I wanted it to be like Buddha, only modern.”
Just as Buddha is a kaleidoscope of 1990s suburban life, Something to Tell You is a chronicle of London in the new century. Kureishi uses flashbacks—and some witty observations—to depict the city’s transformation through globalisation and migration.
Jamal’s best friend Henry notes that “[e]ven the brothels are multicultural now,” as they pass a brothel “offering Russian, Oriental and black women” while Jamal recollects walking through Shepherd’s Bush market where “[h]ijabed Middle Eastern women shopped … where you could buy massive bolts of vivid cloth, crocodile-skin shoes, scratchy underwear, and jewellery, as well as illuminated 3D pictures of Mecca and Jesus.”
Kureishi’s London in Something to Tell You offers, in the words of writer, critic, and journalist Sukhdev Sandhu (author of London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City), the “freedom from homes, from families, from ‘bourgeois’ constraints (that) allows … a limitless palette of intellectual, social and sexual possibilities.”
With the evenhandedness he displayed in Buddha, Kureishi illuminates what Sandhu calls the “brokenness, the disreputable and chaotic aspects of London” but also illustrates that domesticity and contentment can come in many unexpected forms.
Populating this London of Kureishi’s is the colourful cast of characters surrounding Jamal, ranging from his promiscuous sister Miriam and his angry teenaged son Rafi to his best friend Henry, who’s in love with Miriam. Then there are the ghosts from Jamal’s past: Ajita, his first love, and Wolf and Valentin, friends from his adolescence with whom he shares a terrible secret.
There are also Jamal’s entertaining patients. With that wonderful rhythmic way Kureishi has with words, he has Jamal tell us that his clients are “the promiscuous, the frigid, the panicked, the vertiginous; abusers and the abused, cutters, starvers, vomiters, the trapped and the too free, the exhausted and the over-active, and those committed for life to their own foolishness.”
Haunted by the ghosts of his past, Jamal reminisces about 1970s London and its anti-nuclear protests; “lefty” houses filled with liberals; working in the British Library “fetching books for readers from the miles of book-stacked tunnels under Bloomsbury’s”; loving his analyst more than his father (“He gave me more; he saved my life; he made and remade me”); and his unforgettable first love, Ajita.
The doctor’s narratives alternate between the past and present until they converge in a meeting with people from his past and a reminder of an event he would rather forget.
Born in 1954 in London to a Pakistani father and an English mother, the multi-talented Kureishi—he’s a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, and filmmaker—began in theatre, staging his first play, Soaking the Heat, in 1976 at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, going on to win awards for other plays, and eventually becoming the writer-in-residence there.
Kureishi then ventured into movies, and his first screenplay, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), received, among other awards and nominations, an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. His screenplays in recent years have also received a number of accolades.
The Renaissance man is no stranger to book awards either: The Buddha of Suburbia won the Whitbread Award in 1990 for the best first novel. Then there is the controversial 1998 novel, Intimacy; said to be an almost semi-autobiographical account of a man leaving his wife and two young sons, it was adapted for the big screen by Patrick Chéreau and won various awards.
With Something to Tell You, Kureishi proves that his skill as a novelist does not play second fiddle to his other talents.
Successfully recording and displaying the psychedelic and domestic, the florid and drab, Something to Tell You tells a vivid story of life, love, lust, and the importance of freedom in a hybridised, postcolonial metropolis that allows its residents to find happiness without being constrained by fixed ideas about the meaning of life.
Review first published in The Sunday Star of April 27, 2008