I got The Buddha of Suburbia a few years ago, when I was taking a class in British Fiction at U Mass, but we didn’t actually get far enough in the syllabus to read it. I tried to read it a few months ago, but couldn’t get past the opening page. This week, while I was deep in the throes of book indecision, it caught my eye and I decided to give it another shot. Good thing for book indecision because it was surprisingly good.
This is one of those books whose back cover copy is not really an accurate description of the plot. What the marketing copy makes out to be the whole story actually takes place in the first ten pages, and the rest of the story unfolds from there. The novel follows a young boy, Karim, from the end of high school through adulthood, as he navigates family, sex, friendship, and politics in 1970s London. At the start of the book, Karim’s father, an Indian immigrant, becomes a kind of improvised guru to the needy suburban middle-aged, falls in love with a hippy, and leaves his wife. This family upset becomes the background against which Karim moves as he tries to figure out who he is and who the people are around him.
Full of bitterly funny skewerings of the art world, and the bourgeois explorations of sexuality and vice that seemingly prevailed in the 70s, Kureishi’s novel captures something a lot of other books don’t: believable and moving character development. This novel unfolds the coming of age process in the subtle, slowly-eye-opening way that people actually experience it. Karim’s relationships with the people around him, especially his own parents, change in the same slow and irreversible way they do for most people, before he even realizes it. It’s impressive, this accuracy and insight.
I suspect we were going to read this novel in my British Fiction class specifically to look at the role of Indian immigrants in postcolonial London, and being that that is my main area of study, of course I paid attention to that in my personal reading, as well. What I liked about this aspect of the novel is that no one was beating you over the head with the “this is a novel about race” cudgel. Rather, it was incorporated throughout deftly, like a string woven through the whole thing, visible only occasionally, but you know that string somehow ties the whole thing together.
The only thing that prevents me from loving this book to death is that in some areas the narrative felt too jumpy, too unsettling. You don’t yet know the characters, or understand anything about them, before Kureishi tears their lives apart. It felt jarring, and I wasn’t sure whether specific events were meant to be meaningful or whether anyone was supposed to care. And it was, at times, quite difficult to like Karim, though that’s likely meant to be the point. Some of the characters’ motivations don’t always make sense, because Kureishi doesn’t quite give you enough to work with (the strange scene in which Terry, a fellow actor, drunkenly bullies Karim into some unspecified and confusing political action for the communist/socialist party feels very unlikely and strange).
Kureishi makes up for these short comings by giving us a character that we can, perhaps, grow up a little bit with, and showing us in the end that the growing-up process is never quite over. All of this with seedy, luscious prose and a distinctive narrative voice, and you have a unique and accomplished piece of fiction, well worth reading even outside of class.