The Immigrant by Manju Kapur

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The Immigrant by Manju Kapur

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A portrait not just of a marriage, but of the whole immigrant experience from the viewpoint of an educated ambitious woman. Entertaining and interesting, but lacking the spark of with that would have made it truly shine.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571244065

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Nina is turning 30. Never a happy time, but worse when you are single, living with your mother in much reduced circumstances, and teaching English literature to lazy, recalcitrant, absconding students . She loved Miranda House in Delhi. It had given her a degree, and then a job. Still, it was such a come-down from the days when her father was in the foreign office and she studied at the International Academy in Brussels.

Her father had died leaving the family with nothing and beholden to his parents. The years of resentment eased only slightly when Nina finished school and left them behind in Lucknow, taking her mother to Delhi & herself to Miranda House. Karma, her mother said. But the old woman still harboured dreams of marrying off her daughter back into their rightful place in society. The plans weren't going so well.

As she turned 30, it was time once again to consult the astrologer.

Meanwhile, a world away, on the Canadian east coast to be precise, another 30-something Indian contemplates the future.

Ananda was solid middle-class stock – but with connections. His sister had married very well. His father was determined he should be a doctor, but a not-quite-good-enough exam grade put paid to that notion and dentistry was the next best option. All the kudos of medicine, but without the antisocial hours, was the positive way to look at it.

The plan went well for a while. By 24 he had his own practice and his parents were looking for a suitable bride. Life looked good. Until a rickshaw met a truck and both of his parents died instantly.

Consumed by grief, he lost all interest in ideas of marriage and happiness – until his emigrant Uncle in Canada (also a dentist) persuaded him to cross the oceans, retrain in the West and make his fortune in a new land.

It is the mid-1970s, Ananda has struggled through his adjustment to new ways of life and is beginning to build a joint practice in Halifax with a college friend, whose family more-or-less adopted him, when his Uncle felt it was time he became 'independent'.

In India a state of emergency has been declared, as a paranoid government fears losing its grip on the perks of power. An only slightly less nervous sister is still trying to marry off her emigrant brother. Via the astrologer, Alta (the sister) comes to hear of Nina and a match is suggested.

Somewhere above chick lit, but not quite making it into literary fiction, The Immigrant is a highly readable look at stepping into the unknown. It's a portrait of an arranged marriage, but one where both of the parties are content with the arrangement and are willing to make it work. Both however will find their own kinds of disappointment within it.

Beyond the marriage, it is an examination of immigration and how people of similar backgrounds respond very differently to a change of world. There are those who throw themselves whole-heartedly into the new, rejecting everything from the past, as Ananda's uncle has done, or those like Nina who try to cling to the essence of who they are and the traditions that made them, and in between there is Ananda, who really doesn't know where he stands. Intellectually he's with his uncle, but his actions and ambitions betray his subsumed heritage, which he'd do much better to acknowledge and enjoy than to force himself to reject.

A book with these themes is bound to raise comparisons. Brick Lane, it isn't. Nina comes to a Canada that doesn't have the ready-made ex-pat community that Nazeen finds in London. Also, she is educated, speaks perfectly good English, having taught it for years. She loves books. Wants to work in an academic field. It is in every sense a world away.

If you had to pick a comparable, it would be Jane Austen. Set in the days when India was suffering its post-independence growth pangs, and in the west gender roles and attitudes were being re-politicised, The Immigrant is ultimately about ambition. Specifically, female ambition, and the concept of such a thing being focussed on the world at large, regardless of any male input into the wider life of the woman concerned. Indeed the male in point has a few sexuality issues of his own to contend with. Had Austen lived to dress in loons and platforms, it is just the kind of book she would have written. It is absolutely all about pride and prejudice, sense and sensibility. Unfortunately, as light a read as it is, Kapur doesn't have Austen's wit or sense of the ridiculous. She sets ups scenes that are aching to be funny, but restrains them for from being so, which is a shame.

An entertaining read – probably a bit too 'girly' for the chaps – but with a freer sense humour it could have been brilliant.

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

Further reading suggestion: For a completely different immigrant experience try Brick Lane by Monica Ali. For more from Delhi, try Secrets and Lies by Jaishree Misra.

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