“Secrets are my currency: I deal in them for a living. The secrets of desire, of what people want, and of what they fear the most. The secrets of why love is difficult, sex complicated, living painful and death so close and yet placed far away. Why are pleasure and punishment closely related? How do our bodies speak? Why do we make ourselves ill? Why do you want to fail? Why is pleasure so hard to bear?”
And so begins Hanif Kureishi’s brilliant new novel, Something to Tell You. While I often don’t particularly like the characters Kureishi creates (I would find their lives too messy to deal with in ‘real life’), they are always the sort of people I want to read about–bright, interesting, entertaining and troubled. And in Something to Tell You, once again, Kureishi delivers a wonderful tale with his usual worldly wisdom. If you enjoyed The Buddha of Suburbia, then chances are you will enjoy the marvelous Something To Tell You, for in some ways these two novels complement each other.
The narrator of Something to Tell You is Jamal Kahn a London-based, middle-aged Anglo-Indian psychoanalyst. Jamal tells us: “Alas to the surprise of many, psychoanalysis doesn’t make people behave better, nor does it make them morally good.” Divorced and with a busy practice, Jamal spends his days listening to his patients’ many problems, and even Jamal’s relatives, friends and acquaintances feel free to bend Jamal’s ear at any time of the day or night. Jamal, who spends his life listening to others, tells his story to the reader, reaching back into his past while exploring the nature of desire, guilt, and loss. Kureishi’s characters are mainly middle-aged Londoners, coming to terms with aging and death, juggling those realities against the time left. While the renewal of desire and desirability is a huge issue for some of the characters, Jamal struggles with the ghosts of his past and long cherished dreams of what could have been.
Jamal’s life is full of colourful characters–Jamal’s mother has “discharged her duty and gone AWOL,” and Jamal’s exotic sister, Miriam and her lover theater and film director Henry embark on an odyssey of the London sex club scene, much to the dismay of Henry’s daughter. The fact that Henry is also Jamal’s best friend complicates matters even further, and Jamal is expected to ‘save’ Henry from Miriam’s corrupting clutches. But Jamal has problems of his own. His ex-wife Josephine and son, Rafi are steadily moving out of Jamal’s life into new lives of their own. When the novel begins, Jamal’s life is fairly sterile and uncomplicated, but as the story develops, he becomes increasingly mired in the relationships of his family and friends. Plus Jamal’s past–incidents he’d much rather leave buried–float to the surface and cannot be avoided.
I loved this novel. Kureishi’s amazing insight into human relationships seeps through on every page, and he’s an experienced enough author to veer away from the trap of making the therapist/narrator the person who has all the answers. Jamal may be a therapist, but he’s just as troubled as everyone else. The difference with Jamal, however, is that his problems are largely buried, so his life appears, at least on the surface, to be in control. The madness and mayhem of Miriam’s chaotic household with her cabbie partner-in crime, Bushy, a dealer in contraband, is in complete contrast to Jamal’s ordered existence. Jamal has a time and a place for passion, but unlike his sister, it’s compartmentalized, tucked safely away from the other aspects of his life. Jamal’s ex-lover, Karen notes that Jamal “hated to fall in love, it was liked being sucked down the plughole. You lost control, it was madness.”
Kureishi’s books and films (Rosie and Sammy Get Laid, My Beautiful Launderette) tend to be social commentaries of the shifting times. Buddha of Suburbia, for example, is a stunning account of the 70s and 80s in Britain. Something to Tell You is also an account of a shifting Britain–a Britain in which “we live in Thatcher’s psyche if not her anus, in the world she made, of competition, consumerism, celebrity and guilt’s bastard son, Charity: bingeing and debt.” In this world of shifting values, “who could not be amused by the fact that the capitalism unleashed by the Conservatives under Thatcher was destroying the very social values the party espoused.” With an unpopular war waging in Iraq, the tragedy of the London bombings of 2005, and a country run by a government running amok, Kureishi weaves in the troubled political times that contribute to his characters’ sense of betrayal, loss, and confusion as they struggle with disappointments, aging, and the “uses and difficulties of pleasure.”