cover image The Wonder House

The Wonder House

Justine Hardy, . . Grove, $24 (371pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1822-6

The rising fears and fading aspirations of a Muslim family in Indian-controlled Kashmir come in for observation by outsiders in Hardy's fiction debut, set in 1999–2000—just after the Kargil War and Musharraf's subsequent coup. Gracie Singh is an 80-year-old Englishwoman who has lived in Kashmir since the death of her Indian husband more than 20 years ago. She drifts about in a nostalgic, alcoholic daze on her houseboat, which everyone calls the Wonder House, tended by Lila, a niece of Gracie's landlord and decades-long friend, Masood Abdullah, and by Lila's mother, the mysteriously mute Suriya. The Abdullahs live in fear of both a brutal Indian military and the radicalization of their religion; when Masood's nephew Irfan leaves home to join a militant group, he puts the family in grave danger, a situation exacerbated by the arrival of English journalist Hal Copeman. Hardy chronicled a rising 1990s New Delhi and the always fabulous Bollywood in a pair of nonfiction titles. In her novel she uses too light a touch with history (as pushed through an acerbic Gracie and the Abdullah family exigencies) and too heavy a hand with message (having Hal, for instance, apologize for journalism's limitations). But her scenes are rich with sensual detail, making for vivid impressions. (Apr.)