Leela Patel, the young heroine of Jha's arresting first novel, endures a stifling sense of dislocation caused by a series of emotional blows. Born to a Gujarati Indian family living in Kenya, Leela first loses her father during a Nairobi riot, then suffers separation from her home, her mother and her twin brothers when she is sent to live with exploitative relatives in Paris. Soon homeless, she uses her body to find male help and protection, and a string of often brutal liaisons leaves her bruised. Leela is no conventional waif, however. In an intriguing twist, Jha makes her preternaturally sensitive to smells of all kinds—food; bodies, both human and animal; the Metro. As Leela learns the language and landscape of her adopted city, and later infiltrates different social milieus, she never achieves a sense of safety. Moreover, when she feels most worthless and degraded, she imagines that her own body smells foul: "a dark, feral smell, too strong to be civilized." This metaphorical conceit is intriguing at first, but although Leela (now Lily) morphs into a restaurant consultant and a media public relations star, her continuing inability to take charge of her life becomes nearly as frustrating for the reader as it does for the forlorn young woman. Over the course of the novel, Jha presents an acutely observed picture of upwardly mobile French society and its subworld of émigrés, artists and demimonde. Moreover, she succeeds in producing an exotic and provocative account of people who experience the contemporary world as a mass of sensual stimuli. Agent, Laura Susjin. (June)
Forecast: An enticing cover will draw readers to this book, and those interested in the work of emerging Indian writers will find it merits reading. Rights sold in the U.K., France, Germany, Holland, Italy and Sweden.