When American travel writer Max Gate returns to India after a 15-year absence to attend the funeral of a prominent advocacy journalist and activist named Damini who died in a mountain cycling accident, he stays at the seaside villa of long-time friend Byron Mallick. A high-profile industrialist and a student of history with a near-anachronistic fondness for the pursuits and mannerisms of the days of British colonial rule, Byron is rich, expediently amoral, utterly charming, and likely to be charged with murder.
"I think I know why you are here, says Byron.
"I was afraid you would say that, I reply.
"It's not what you think it is, Max, he says.
"I haven't had time to form an opinion yet about any of this, I confess to him miserably.
"You never were a man for having opinions, were you? says Byron Mallick."
"So Good in Black," Sunetra Gupta's first novel in ten years, is character-driven literary fiction, featuring a non-linear plot, Spartan passages of stylized and pointed verbal jousting between characters, and highly evocative descriptive passages. While "So Good in Black" relies much less on a stream of consciousness approach than Gupta's debut in "Memories of Rain" (1992), the characters' interior landscapes nonetheless take center stage in this novel.
As the characters assemble at the villa on the Bay of Bengal on the eve of the transit of Venus in June, 2004 (the first such transit since 1882) and as information about Byron's prospective complicity in Damini's death slowly comes to light, the primary focus of the novel is on the all-consuming and compelling past, as narrator Max Gate tries to understand what happened to him in Calcutta and what it might signify.
Max and those who are important to him have been rather like planets circling the dark sun that is Byron Mallick, their orbits and seasons eternally under his influence: Piers O'Reilly, Max's caustic friend and former brother in law; Ela, with whom Max remains obsessed years after their
affair; Ela's father Nikhilesh, whom Byron has known since their school days; Max's former wife Barbara, still in his life; and Ela's cousin Damini whose death will forever alter the Mallick solar system whether or not Byron is charged with murder. In some traditions, a transit of Venus occurs with a momentous break-through of consciousness.
The novel's title is taken from "There Goes God," by Neil and Tim Finn on the 1991 "Woodface" album released by Crowded House. According to the lyrics, God doesn't like "Beelzebub because he looks so good in black."
Byron views India's first Governor General Warren Hastings (1732-1818) as his role model in terms of philosophy and temperament. As Byron asserts his innocence, those at the villa see, with and without cynicism, a parallel to Hastings' impeachment, trial and exoneration. They've heard the story to often,
"So Good in Black's" complex back-story of interrelationships is told in snippets of conversation and alternately clear and ambiguous fragments of memory. The resulting history of Max, Byron, Piers, Ela, Nikhilesh, Barbara and Damini is impressionistic and dreamlike in affect--an archetype of obsession and regret. Gupta's most powerful work to date challenges the reader with the dynamic and often contradictory shadows cast by friendship across the illusory counterpane of certainty and time.