Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

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Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A multi-layered novel spanning time from 1775 to 2009, set in the Californian desert. Some elements of the story are fantastic, but it never quite rises to a cohesive whole.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0241143117

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Quite literally at the heart of Hari Kunzru's latest novel stands not a person, but strange geographical feature in the California desert - three large rocks known as 'The Pinnacles'. If you've ever looked at a feature of the landscape and wonder what it has meant to those who have gone before, then you will find a similar stance here. Kunzru's episodic narrative takes in various points in time from 1775 to 2009 all of which centre around this rock structure which has had different meanings for different generations. There are echoes of the past in each new version, but no more than that.

It's hugely ambitious, and much more so that the other Kunzru novels that I have read, although it shares with his other books the playful but insightful writing style. He's a writer that has a real feel for human nature. However, for me, it doesn't quite succeed in rising to its ambition. It leaps back and forward in time frame from chapter to chapter in a manner that is disorienting and I couldn't help wondering if it would have been more effective presented as discrete short stories that shared a similar stimulus - which is effectively what it is.

Where I was most frustrated though was in the imbalance of the weight and emotional connection to the different threads. By far the dominant thread surrounds the disappearance of an autistic son of a wealthy New York couple set in 2008. The story covers both the father and mother's side and the lead up to the disappearance and the subsequent media furore. It's frighteningly realistic and disturbing with real emotional heart. The problem as far at the book is concerned is that it is such a terrifically well told story that I started to yearn to return to these events when Kunzru wants to draw the reader back to another time.

The other main theme was, for me, less engaging. 'The Pinnacles' became a focus for the hippy movement in the 1970s and a cult of extra-terrestrial worshipers gathered there. While this element of the book has more in terms of threads to the past and the present day, I was never emotionally engaged in the characters or their plight. It's just a weaker story than the child abduction thread.

Amongst the other elements to the book are a Spanish report from the 1770s about the progress of the missionary attempts to bring Christianity to the native American tribes in the area, the meaning of the rocks to the native American tribes and, once more in the recent past, the story of an English rockstar fleeing his debauched life and, briefly, a young Iraqi girl's role in a local marine camp where she role plays a middle east village for military training.

These last two threads are also potentially interesting but never really get played out to their full extent. Yes there are themes of displacement and abduction throughout, and there are some generational links of the families involved, but that aside, the sense I had was of a story broadening out without ever quite coming back together again.

If you are looking for a multi-layered, complex novel, then Kunzru's engaging writing makes this a good choice - in the hands of a lesser writer this could have been an unholy mess - but my overriding sense was one of frustration that the focus kept drifting from what would have made fascinating stories in their own right which was slightly disappointing.

Fans of this multi-layered approach would love Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Hari Kunzru also features in Ox-Tales: Water by Oxfam.

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Buy Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru at Amazon.com.

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