This started out as an interesting aerial view of a family and their dysfunctions, and then zoomed down into a closeup of the family’s self-absorbed, philosophizing, sex-hungry teenage son. I liked the set-up, but man, teens and early twenty-somethings having Deep Thoughts about the world gets old reaaaaal fast.
Karim is growing up in 1970s England, in the suburbs outside London. His father Haroon is from India; his mother Margaret is British and white. Karim absorbs conflicting lessons about his heritage, exacerbated when Haroon is adopted by a social-climbing free spirit named Eva. Eva has cocktail parties and invites Haroon to come speak to her guests. He drapes himself in colorful scarves and jackets, sits cross-legged in Eva’s living room, and spouts Buddhism and scraps of mysticism and philosophy from all over. Eva’s white suburbanite guests eat it up, eventually paying for the privilege of attending these parties. Haroon has great fun with it all, bamboozling the same people who would be casually racist if they saw him on the street or in the grocery store. This was my favorite part of the book, watching Karim learn these sociological intricacies as he tries to figure out his place in the world.
Haroon starts to believe his own story and hype, eventually leaving his family and moving in with Eva. Karim’s mother is crushed; the family is destroyed. This is when Karim hits his most self-absorbed, latching onto Eva as his ticket up in society (plus, he has a crush on her son), and ignoring his distraught mother. Her pain embarrasses him.
Things get even farther afield from there, with Karim couch-surfing and discovering sex and drugs and rock’n’roll in all the most painfully pompous ways. At one point he even reflects on what a morally terrible person he is, and how he always makes the choice that suits him best, even if it hurts his loved ones. But then he goes right on and keeps doing it.
I liked the bits with the culture clashes (there’s a seriously anxiety-inducing subplot with his cousin), with the younger generation being thoroughly Britishized and the Indian parents torn between pride and disdain. Ultimately, though, Karim was just too much of an unlikeable character to enjoy spending so much time in his head and his world. If it had stayed focused on the family stuff from the beginning, rather than devolving into his solo navel-gazing, I would’ve liked the book much better. The writing was good though! A sample: “Mum’s ambition was to be unnoticed, to be like everyone else, whereas Dad liked to stand out like a juggler at a funeral.”