The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph

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The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph
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Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: This look at the fallout from a young man's suicide is literary, and not what one might assume to expect from Indian novels. While not entirely successful it could still be considered worth a look.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: August 2012
Publisher: John Murray
ISBN: 9781848543096

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Meet what the first chapter calls the underdog family. Tamil immigrants to Madras, they are below the breadline due to Ousep's constant drinking, and by him being a failed writer and mediocre journalist. His wife Mariamma has, shall we say, problems, their younger son is fixated on the beautiful girl next door. But their other son Unni is a cartoonist hottie - a handsome prodigy of the comic strip world - or he was until he took a nosedive off their roof three years ago, aged 17. Ousep is still tracking through his son's friends and output, trying to seek the cause of this suicide, and what we have here is the journey of the family as he struggles towards the truth.

It's certainly an intriguing read. Ousep's clues are few and far between - the cartoons are on the stoic side to say the least, and he hit a brick wall ages ago in his investigations. But while he goes about his detective work, in what is mostly present tense, his family lead their lives also affected by the death - especially the young Thoma, whose object of desire was on good terms before the social anathema of the suicide occurred.

It's Madras in 1990, flashing back to 1987, and India is a pressure cooker for young men, with it seems all fathers willing to take a belt to their boys to drive them to success in college exams - so they can emigrate with qualifications and make more of themselves. It's a world seldom seen in what we get to read, and all the more welcome for it. It is also very successfully taken apart at times, as Joseph turns a really scathing look on his community's sexual hang-ups, social and religious peccadilloes and more. The last book this catty about its own culture I read was Hope: a Tragedy by Shalom Auslander.

But despite the Indian flavour, and the literary look at a family's quandary, this is not a complete success. A lot of the humour I am sure is specific to the Indian audience, and the social satire might raise howls of approval somewhere, but be blatant truth to us. The bigger problem for me lay in the last 60 pages, where the topics get too deep and impenetrable. Before then this was a clever, intelligent mystery you didn't want to end, but my fingers itched to skip pages late on, not from excitement but from bafflement.

Before then I could see why this author is being lauded, and I'll do what those cheating blurb-writers do and cherry-pick my plus-points in one fell swoop - intriguing... literary... mystery.... If only it were that to the end.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The author's only prior novel was reviewed here.

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