Review: Western Lane by Chetna Maroo
Longlisted for the Booker Prize this year, Western Lane explores both bereavement and the immigrant experience in Britain
After the inclusion on the 2022 Booker shortlist of Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, the shortest novel ever to be recognized in the history of the prize, this year’s jury has once again included some brilliant short works on the longlist of 13 books, also known as the Booker dozen. Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane, which runs to 160 pages, follows the tale of a Gujarati family in 1980s London. Recounted through the eyes of the youngest child, eleven-year-old Gopi, it captures a household comprising a man and his three daughters descending into a state of emotional distance after the death of the girl’s mother. To overcome his grief, the father enlists the sisters in a training regime to play squash at the local Western Lane sports court. Her elder sisters lose interest but Gopi strives to achieve perfection in the game.
The prose is succinct. Here’s the description of Mona, the eldest sibling, taking on the role of mother: “Mona sat in the front of the dressing table mirror for long stretches of time. She developed a placid expression, which made her look older… She served me extra dal and rice and took less for herself. She asked me if I had changed out of my damp clothes after training, and she asked Khush about her homework. She was attentive to us, even kind. Sometimes we would feel the strain in her, the mental and physical burden of being something she was not.”
The father, an electrician, has stopped going to work after becoming depressed at the loss, making it difficult to manage household finances. One day, Mona shocks everyone by accepting a position as a helper at a local salon. With marvellous brevity, the book accurately depicts the family’s financial situation and the pressures they face.
The sport of squash is a strong backdrop. The protagonist’s father is preoccupied by Jahangir Khan, widely regarded as the greatest squash player ever, who began playing as a result of his own brother’s death. Gopi and her dad begin practising the game and studying Jahangir’s tactics after staying up late watching tapes of his matches. Squash acts as a diversion as they struggle to come to terms with their loss.
Written with tenderness, this impressive debut novel grounds a family’s loss in an honest examination of the workings of the world. Following a young girl as she grieves for her dead mother, pursuing sporting perfection to eclipse her pain, Western Lane fills the reader’s heart and leaves it permanently altered.
Hritik Verma is an independent reviewer. He blogs at allayingart.wordpress.com. He is @Hritik38233434 on Twitter and @allayingart on Instagram