Hari Kunzru, . . Dutton, $24.95 (416pp) ISBN 978-0-525-94642-7
Pre-pub buzz about this impressive debut includes a record $1.8-million book deal and predictions of literary renown for its 30-year-old author. Charting the bizarre and picaresque journey of a chameleon-like figure from India to England to Africa, Kunzru keenly explores themes of racial and ethnic identity and overweening British pride. Until 1918, his 15th year, spoiled Pran Nath believes that he is the son of a wealthy Kashmiri merchant and a disturbed woman, Amrita, who died giving birth to him. When the housekeeper reveals that he is actually an Englishman's child, and thus a despised half-breed, he's thrown out on the street. After an involuntary stay in a brothel, a stint as a servant in the depraved household of the Nawab of Fatehpur, and a sojourn at a Bombay missionary's home, he moves on to England, where he pretends to be an orphaned heir, Jonathan Bridgeman. With each identity he assumes, the hero strives to become more and more like a pure Englishman and to hide his "tainted blood." As Bridgeman, Pran goes through Brideshead-era Oxford and falls in love with a seductive heartbreaker, Astarte Chapel. When she dumps him, he despairingly joins an anthropological expedition to the Fotse tribe in Africa; in the plot's most clever twist, he comes full circle with his real father's life. While the initial chapters are somewhat heavy-handed, and the plot stalls in its overfamiliar satire of the Oxford aesthetes, the African chapters exude a Paul Bowles–like power, and the seamlessly composed, vividly exotic set pieces exhibit an energy and density not usually found in debut fiction. London talents like Kunzru and Zadie Smith suggest that something like the Latin American boom of the '60s is happening in England.
Reviewed on: 11/19/2001