The anti-hero of The Impressionist
, Hari Kunzru's daringly ambitious first novel, is half-English and half-Indian. In the Raj of the 1920s the racial and social divides are enormous but Pran Nath is able to bridge them, crossing from one side to another in a series of reinventions of his own personality. He begins as the spoilt child of an Indian lawyer but circumstances thrust him out of his pampered adolescence into the teeming and dangerous life of the streets. After a bewildering period as one of the pawns in Machiavellian political and sexual scheming at the decadent court of a minor Maharajah, he escapes to Bombay. There he is taken up by a half-demented Scottish missionary and his wife but prefers to slope off to the city's red light district whenever he can. During a time of riot and bloodshed the chance of recreating himself as an English schoolboy, destined for public school and Oxford, presents itself and he takes it. Even this is not to be his final transformation, however.
In some ways Kunzru is almost too ambitious. There is so much crammed into the pages of The Impressionist that some of it, almost inevitably, doesn't work as well as it might. However, as the shape-shifting Pran Nath moves from one identity to another, knockabout farce mixes with satire, social comedy with parody. And, beneath the comic exuberance and linguistic invention, there is an intelligent and occasionally moving examination of notions of self, identity and what it means to belong to a class or society. --Nick Rennison
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"Riveting stuff, beautifully written... Superb" THE TIMES
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