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Review: Hanif Kureishi’s Something To Tell You

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Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel is a startlingly clear-minded, often hedonistic, but ultimately believable look at the complications of life, love and sex. Jamal, a middle-aged psychoanalyst, remains obsessed with the loss of his college girlfriend Ajita and lives in guilt over his own participation in the murder of her father. Despite his own neuroses, or rather, because of it, he has experienced great success in his field, and enjoys an intimate all-access pass into the lives of the wealthy and popular. As if in contrast, his sister Miriam, some variant of a spiritualist with too many children and piercings, lives in disorder and filth, and he shares a typically middle-class relationship with his son, Rafi, who lives with his estranged wife Josephine. His Pakistani father is dead, and his elderly English mother is in a relationship with a woman she knew as a child.

Jamal’s famous director friend Henry suddenly embarks on an affair with Miriam, which serves as a sort of turning point in excavating the past. It turns out not only that Ajita is alive and well, but her brother Mustaq – once also in love with Jamal – has reinvented himself into a flamboyant, affluent celebrity musician. As things take their course and it becomes clear that Jamal needs to confess to his crime, what remains to be seen is whether his desperation to absolve himself of his errors will tear them apart or bring them together.

Although Jamal is both narrator and default protagonist, every character is so persuasive, so larger-than-life yet perceptively etched, that at most times the book feels like a vehicle for an ensemble cast. And there are many – exes, offspring, lovers, cameos both by real celebrities and characters taken from Kureishi’s earlier fiction. No relationship has a denouement, be it to a ghost made from guilt or a girlfriend. Everyone is fair game in this complex web of selves past and present – and a declaration of love is inevitably a declaration of war.

Sex, of course, levels everything out, from class to race to religion (the evil paterfamilias – for what’s a Freudian analyst without one? – that was Ajita’s father is replaced by the Bush-Blair empire, and its effects on an England just about to be hit by terrorism). Miriam and Henry indulge in orgies at clubs; the same occurs in Mustaq’s home. Jamal and the preadolescent Rafi discuss sex, violence and psychology as they watch cats copulate. Jamal has a less terrible, yet equally detrimental secret in his past: a career as a pornographer. Sex is everywhere, with little hint of scandal – unrealistic perhaps, but how refreshing.

The humour, when it appears, hits chords of brilliance, as when Henry’s adult daughter Lisa visits Jamal at his office, calls his work “patronizing analyst quackery”, then says, “Freud’s been discredited over and over. Patient envy… Penis envy, I mean. Jesus.”

Slips, Freudian and otherwise, abound aplenty in this novel. Accidental pregnancies and murders have their place, but above all else are the slips of the heart – who is loved or desired, who stays loved or desired, and why.

Despite their superficial dysfunctions and exaggeratedness, its characters are innately human. Children are loved, oppressors are hated, death and age catch up. At its heart, the simplest truth remains: hell is other people, certainly, but it is also their absence.

Most commendably, the novel is neither soap-operatic nor stuffed with psycho-philosophical ramblings. For a story that could so easily have lapsed into either direction, populated as it is by a veritable circus of characters and narrated by a man preoccupied by the psyche, Something To Tell You avoids those pitfalls. This is not drama. It is contemporary life, with its mish-mash of sexual expressions, unconventional domestic arrangements and relationships that do not ever fall apart completely, only reincarnate to accommodate what life brings along. Kureishi does nothing but tell it like it is in this utterly delicious read.

An edited version appeared in today’s New Sunday Express.