Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi

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Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: A psychoanalyst hides a terrible secret as he struggles to deal with changing relationships. This is a curate's egg of a book – and when it's good it's very good indeed. Shame about the not so good bits.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 978-0571238767 Date: December 2008
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571238767

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Dr Jamal Khan is a successful psychoanalyst but he is approaching a difficult age. His son Rafi will soon be a teenager and they will soon no longer be able to greet each other by touching fists and exchanging the traditional middle-class greeting, 'Yo bro – dog!' Already, the twelve-year-old hides his head when he sees his father. Meanwhile, the boy's mother Josephine, from whom Jamal separated eighteen months ago, has a new boyfriend.

Jamal has to come to terms with these life changes while hiding a terrible secret. He is a man who deals in secrets for a living yet he himself is haunted by one of his own. His career as a reader of minds and signs began with a brutal act of violence – a murder which resulted in his first love, Ajita, going away forever. The book opens on the anniversary of these traumatic events, and as the story unfolds the past will be coming back to prod at his conscience. Ajita will return from her thirty-year exile, and one of Jamal's accomplices from that fateful 1970s night will also turn up looking for some form of retribution.

Jamal's reminiscences of his life in the seventies, of meeting Ajit and the events that lead up to the death that changes everything, are the most vibrant part of the book. The evocation of the time of industrial unrest and radical student politics, of first love and young friendships, is conjured up well. We are back in The Buddha of Suburbia territory, and most enjoyable it is, too.

But we are brought back to the present, where Jamal's elder sister Miriam is embarking on a swinging affair with his best friend, the film and theatre producer Henry Richardson. To Jamal, this is almost an incest. All their separate existences are shaken by this unlikely liaison. For Miriam is a single parent Muslim woman with her eyebrows, nose, lips and chin pierced by so many rings and studs that parts of her face resemble a curtain rail. Henry, meanwhile, is a grey-bearded intellectual who is turned on by Miriam's 'black album' of filthy pictures and becomes drawn to a world of home-made porno films and 'overwhelmingly unusual acts' and, ultimately, to organised orgies under the railway arches of South London. 'I'm telling you, Jamal, not since I was a socialist have I felt such a sense of community.'

There is a lot of sex in this book. Jamal quotes Schopenhauer: 'Sexual passion is the most perfect manifestation of the will to live'. But beneath the kinky sex the real substance of the book is relationships, especially Jamal's relationship with his son Rafi and with Rafi's mother, Josephine.

At times, I found it a difficult book to read although at the same time it was often immensely enjoyable. It is witty (laugh-out-loud funny in places) and thought-provoking. But the plot, such as it is, has little narrative drive. Kureishi's discursive style, in which he will wander off at a tangent in the middle of an exposition, is sometimes entertaining but occasionally anti-climactic. He has described this discursive style as 'a kind of free association', a Freudian technique used by real psychoanalysts. The story meanders along pleasantly enough, but just like one of Henry's plays, it takes a long time to get from the beginning to the end.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: A Partisan's Daughter by Louis de Bernieres for the 1970s angle and Saturday by Ian McEwan for the post 9/11 London angle.

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