At first glance the blurb for Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane didn’t appeal with its mention of squash courts but it’s published by one of my favourite imprints so when it popped through my letterbox, I decided to give it a try. Maroo’s quietly perceptive debut follows a family, paralysed by grief and an inability to express it.
They were sorry for him, but they were also trying to get the measure of something and we knew it had to do with the space that had opened out in front of him.
Gopi is eleven when her mother dies, her sisters Mona and Kushi fifteen and thirteen respectively. Their father seems poleaxed by loss, told in no uncertain terms by his sister-in-law that his daughters are running wild when the family marks the end of the Jain formal mourning period with a family meal. He comes to an unusual conclusion, picking up the sport he and his brother played as boys and taking his three daughters off to the Western Lane courts where they train intensively. When Gopi shows promise, he focuses his attention on her. Mona has been carrying the family, angry at her father’s inability to get a grip on everyday life, then angry again when he begins to talk to the mother of another squash player. Ged and Gopi show real talent, playing against each other at her father’s request, then finding a connection off the court. As they prepare for a tournament, Gopi’s father entirely taken up with her training, the pressure cooker of emotions explodes and Gopi decides to take action.
Pa told us there are times when a player needs help from outside.
Maroo’s carefully controlled narrative is told through Gopi’s voice. So much is unexpressed in this family left rudderless by loss. Their father is both devasted and seemingly incapable of raising three motherless daughters. His collapse is poignantly described but it’s Gopi’s confusion and puzzlement which is the most touching, looking to her older sisters for interpretation of his behaviour while struggling with her own emotions. Her sudden, uncontrollable outbursts of grief are well done, shocking in their intensity, and her Uncle Pavan’s quiet kindness gently deflating Aunt Ranjan’s sharp remarks affecting. Gopi’s journey from promising young squash player to a talent to be reckoned with is nicely handled. The ending is suitably ambivalent – we’re left not knowing what the future will hold for her or for her friendship with Ged. Like so much in this beautifully understated novel, much is left unsaid, echoing the silence of the father of this family who by the end of the novel may have found a way to cope with their loss.
Picador Books: London 9781529094626 176 pages Hardback