on 19 September 2012
I don't often write book reviews but I have to say something about 'Genie and Paul'.
It is incredible.
The novel is overflowing with love and yearning, for people and for places. The desires of the characters stretch across London, Mauritius and beyond the pages of this book.
There's Genie's yearning for her brother, and Paul's yearning for Mauritius, for the past, for Jean-Marie, for something. The yearning is familial, geographical, chronological, literary and sexual. The characters all want something - love, sex, calm, excitement, a place to live, a family, stories - but there is something else in this novel which pushes the sense of yearning further - it has something to do with the tone of the narration, which is fixed to the characters but also slightly removed from them - it is dream-like, unfixed yet also guiding.
When the author describes a place, be it London or Mauritius or a story from one of the character's lives, the description is universal - these are not just `characters' - they live and breathe, they are fleshy - yet they also represent entire generations.
Soobramanien describes the truisms of London - its drabness, uniformity, mass, for example, but also its colour, the sense of possibility, and the sense of hopelessness. Mauritius feels dreamlike and familiar yet it is also filled with unexpected things.
Both London and Mauritius are, in a sense, paradise and hell in this novel, or rather, they contain both places. This adds further to the feeling of yearning which runs throughout - neither of these places provides the character with any `answer' despite their desperate search. Whatever they are looking for does not lie only in the places where they live, nor within their own hearts, nor within the hearts of others. Perhaps it is truer to say that the answer lies in all of these places. Like all great literature, this book does not give the answer.
The image of a storm touches everything in this novel - throughout, the storm is both real and symbolic. The energy of the storm and its potential for destruction is the same as the energy inside the hearts and minds of these characters - it is their yearning - for people and for places - it is the force that drives them on.
The characters desire to connect with people and with places. Sex, in this respect, is very important in the novel, and these scenes are truly wonderful - here, we see the characters' desire acted out but these moments are fleeting and their desire remains unquenched.
Soobramanien's writing is elegant and generous - the story seeps through the characters and the language - one gets a sense of these people and these places as though one has experienced them, as if we have lived their lives, experienced every moment.
The structure of the book is also very impressive - the weaving in and out of everyone's stories and the places where they lived and the history of those places - you are taken on a trip around the world and through time, and it is like a dream (though it is never confusing). The narrative flows like the wind of the storm at the centre of the novel, sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce.
Like I said, I don't often write reviews but it's impossible to keep quiet about 'Genie and Paul'. The book works on every level - emotional, symbolic, historical, sociological - and it will stay with me for a very long time.
If a book proves not to be the book one hoped it would be, then any disappointment may lie not with the author but with the reader. That is the case with Genie and Paul, which I had hoped would be a retelling of a much-loved Mauritian tale. It is true that is what the author offers but this brother and sister transplanted from Mauritius to London in the 1980's and '90's find themselves in an environment of squats and drugs that failed to engage this reader.
That admitted, it is only fair to say that Natasha Soobrmanien writes very well, and tackles an episodic structure that jumps forward and backward in time with great confidence. A sympathetic reader will probably be drawn to know what happens next. I"m sorry it didn't prove to be my kind of book.
on 17 August 2012
I read Genie and Paul in a day and a half, through a train journey, dinner and breakfast the next morning, finding it impossible to put aside, or, at times I admit, escape. It weaves its delirious often claustrophobic way through the tale of a young Mauritian brother and sister who come to London and are drawn back to their homeland. Weaving is the right term too, the writing is so finely crafted that it achieves wonderfully authentic, atmospheric effects, whether it be an ecstatic London club in the 90's or a deserted beach on the island of Rodrigues; creating intense even animistic sensations: shadows 'lick' walls, and flowers, animals, spaces, are all imbued with a secret, sentient life of their own, reflecting, echoing events and feelings that the characters experience or that surround them, unbeknownst.
Italo Calvino talked about the underrated importance of lightness for the novelist, using the example of Perseus, supported by the wind and using the indirect mirror reflection to cut off the head of Medusa without being turned into stone...
Heartily, savagely recommended.
Genie and Paul is the debut novel from Natasha Soobramanien. Taking the French 18th Century classic `Paul et Virginie' by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre as inpsiration, the author has crafted a story about love of people and of places. It is May 2003, and a body is washed up on a beach on Rodrigues, the sister island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. Six weeks earlier, in March 2003, a tropical cyclone hit Rodrigues, and it wrought destruction. On the same night, in London, twenty-six-year-old Genie Lallan wakes up in hospital, having collapsed after a night in a club with her beloved brother Paul, who has now vanished. It seems that her more innocent nature has been tarnished in part by her drug-taking brother.
Through the numerous glimpses into their pasts as the story unfolds, we discover that Paul and Genie moved to Britain from Mauritius, and whilst Genie takes to her new home, Paul aches to be back in Mauritius.
The narrative is composed of three sections, relating first to Genie, then Paul, and finally them both. Within these sections, the stories from the present and the past, which recall various episodes in the lives of the two siblings, build to give the reader a fascinating, layered picture of them both. Often a character is asked by another to tell them their story, and I found this storytelling aspect a wonderful and particularly appealing element of this novel.
Genie and Paul reads like a fresh, original story of love, of shared memories and places that always feel like home to us. Soobramanien offers us a novel where the sense and evocation of place is key, and she writes with great insight as to how our bonds with those we are closest to shape our lives.
We already knew from Natasha Soobramanien's two chapters in Luke Williams' The Echo Chamber (2011) that she is well capable of clear, flowing narrative. Now we have the full novel by her that we hoped would follow. Clearly, she has put a great deal of herself into it, and done much careful research. And the structure of her story, nothing like so straightforward as at first appears, testifies to much thought and considerable skill.
Her starting point is the 18th century French novel Paul et Virginie, a tragic love story based in Mauritius. In 1981 a battered copy of the book accompanies Genie (b. 1976) and her half-brother Paul (b. 1971) from their native Mauritius to London, and in 2003 back again - and onward to the neighbouring island of Rodrigues. Midway through her novel, Soobramanien helpfully summarises the Paul et Virginie story for us, emphasising the climactic ending involving the sea and a storm.
We know from Soobramanien's first pages that Paul will drown, but details at that point are scant and, whilst we also know from those pages that Cyclone Kalunde will do much damage on Rodrigues just a few weeks before Paul's body is washed ashore, it soon becomes clear that his death is not due to Kalunde, at least not directly. He and Genie were visiting a London nightclub as the storm pounded Rodrigues.
Just what happens in the days between Kalunde and the finding of Paul's body becomes the substance of the novel, along with a great many other events, in Mauritius and London, right from the time of Genie's birth. We are also given some background from even before Genie was born.
As readers, we learn much about Mauritius and Rodrigues, and about life in East London for children, teens and twenties in the last decades of the 20th century. Soobramanien also gives us some interesting psychological insights. She has a former partner of Paul remark, "When I was with you, I felt I was on the edge of the world. I felt I was on the outside looking in... How can you live like you do? Why do you have to make things difficult for yourself?" And, having ensured we are aware that Mauritius and Rodrigues are 650 miles apart, 2000 miles from the African coast, Soobramanien compares Genie and Paul to separate islands, remote and totally isolated, yet connected, the one a dependency of the other.
It's a mystery novel rather than a tragedy on the lines of Paul et Virginie, but the apparent veracity and the intelligence of the portrait of life on Mauritius and in London's East End lift it into the premier league of mystery novels, especially as Soobramanien understands her principal characters so well.
on 21 September 2012
This is a mesmerising first novel. Oscillating between London and Mauritius, and between excitement and sadness, the story is propelled by a sister's love for her missing brother. Descriptions of place are at the core of the book; the lush islands of the principle character's births are contrasted with the grit and grey of London and it's underbelly of squats and drugs and peopled by those too sensitive to cope.
Feelings of heart-break and a longing, both for loved ones, and for a home in the deepest sense, pervade the narrative. And the story seamlessly blends the bitter-sweet rush of teenage innocence lost, with the awareness and melancholy of a way of life pushed out towards the edge in a modern world. The book never dwells though, and these emotions are set against many tender and funny moments and a sense throughout of the exhilaration and wildness of being young.
If the title wasn't enough to alert the reader, we learn from the prologue of the importance to the text of an earlier story set in Mauritius, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's 1787 classic 'Paul et Virginie'. Soobramanien delights in playing with and subverting it's colonial and chauvinistic overtones while eking out a modern take on its romantic and tragic qualities.
Adept and delicate the writing carries the reader, weaving large themes and deep feelings together with a light touch. I can really recommend this book. It is thoughtful and moving as well as having a great page turning, well paced story. Like the storm that passes over the islands this book is a tumultuous collision of characters and emotions that leaves in its wake a quiet ache of tenderness.
on 27 August 2012
Genie and Paul begins with an abandoned shack in Rodriguez where a little boy finds a battered copy of Paul et Virginie by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.
What follows is the story of 26-year-old Genie Lallan's search for her beloved brother, Paul, when she wakes up in a London hospital after a night out to find that he has disappeared.
For Genie, her sense of her place in the world revolves around family. For Paul it is different, he believes it lies in his place of birth, Mauritius. Paul is five years older than Genie, who is too young to remember what their home was like in Mauritius before they were uprooted and brought to London, but Paul has not forgotten.
Genie's search for her brother leads her to Rodriguez, the sister island of Mauritius, the place that feels like home to Paul. But does he want to be found?
Where is home? Is it in a place, a person or is it within you? What happens when your idea of home is not as you imagined? Genie and Paul is a novel of breathtaking scope and heart-breaking beauty as it explores the meaning of identity and what it feels like to have no sense of your place in the world. Soobramanien's prose is a delight to the senses. She paints vivid scenes in the imagination with a sensitive and intelligent hand, evoking the sights, sounds and scents of both London and Mauritius.
The lack of speech marks gives the prose a dreamlike quality, which in no way detracts from the story telling, it enriches it. With each turn of the page I sank deeper into the text, soaked in warm waves of hope or the darkness of despair, before floating to the surface in tears at the end.
on 2 November 2012
Genie and Paul is an amazing book. It's beautifully written, the descriptions of scenes and events are rich and evocative, and the main characters as well as the storyline are completely convincing. The novel takes the reader on a journey though Genie and Paul's lives, from their early years in Mauritius to their present lives in London, and as we learn about them, we learn to understand and care about them.
Like most of the greatest stories, the power of the novel I feel lies in how true to life it resonates. I was touched by the childhood memories, and impressed by how delicately but undeniably they formed their characters.When a very young Paul is told off by his mum for picking flowers for her, you feel sorry for him. When he later observes how contrary her behaviour is, you feel his confusion. And so when as a grown-up he leaves his beloved sister Genie behind and sets off to try and find his home, you understand his isolation. In a peculiar way, it reminded me strongly of Charles Dicken's "A Christmas Carol". As the reader is gradually introduced to Genie and Paul 's past and present, so we're given a glimpse of Paul's future.. and like Scrooge, Paul makes a dramatic decision to avoid that future.
A stunning read, that leaves an impression long after you've finished it.
on 23 September 2012
Genie and Paul is an incredibly assured, beautifully written, and always surprising first novel. It has something for everyone - laugh out loud satire on twentysomething house sharing, intense psychological drama, and post colonial politics. A gripping and provocative read. Whoever you are, you'll take something lasting from this novel.
Genie and Paul are brother and sister who, at the ages of 5 and 10 respectively, emigrate from Mauritius to London. Genie is too young to remember much of her old life but Paul finds London grey and unfriendly and longs for the island he sees as his real home. In the novel's prologue it is revealed that Paul has spent his final weeks living the life of a hermit on the island of Rodrigues. The rest of the book, in chapters which jump between different time periods and points of view, shows how he has reached this point.
"Genie and Paul" takes as its inspiration the French 18th-century classic "Paul et Virginie", and the way Soobramanien both draws on and moves away from her source material is very satisfying. Paul's world of squats, raves, and drugs, is a million miles away from the paradise of that earlier book, but the bond between Genie and Paul feels as powerful as the pure love of Bernardin's couple.