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The Impressionist [Hardcover]

Hari Kunzru
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)

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Book Description

28 Mar 2002
A magnificent debut novel which is set to be the WHITE TEETH of 2002. THE IMPRESSIONIST is a comic saga about history, identity and home. A boy is born in Agra - half Indian, half English - at the dawn of the twentieth century. Ejected from his father's house as a teenager when his true parentage is revealed, he embarks on an unforgettable odyssey in search of a home and an identity. Set against the vast, colourful background of colonial India, England and Africa, this epic novel brings to life a riotous cast of characters, and asks what it means to be Indian or English, black or white, or both.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 481 pages
  • Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Ltd; First Edition edition (28 Mar 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0241141699
  • ISBN-13: 978-0241141694
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 16.5 x 4.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,020,328 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

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


" A stunning literary debut for the Observer Young Travel Writer of 1999 in this sweeping colonial history..." -- The Bookseller, November 30, 2001

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Witty and Wise 6 Jun 2003
The Impressionist is Hari Kunzru's debut novel and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. It tells the remarkable story of a young boy, Pran Nath, born in India at the beginning of the twentieth century and destined by way of mixed parentage to a long and complex journey in search of his true self. Thus, Kunzru's meditations on identity, race, the British Empire, and anthropology are woven into a plot which sees Pran pushed and pulled by a mixture of fate and chance through Bombay, Oxford and Africa.
This plot, loose though it is, moves along at an astonishing pace and is aided both by Kunzru's marvellous rendering of myriad characters and by his tragi-comic wit tinged with elements of farce. Read it twice - once for the humour, pathos and sheer exuberance, and again for the intellectual vigour which may well be lost in the sheer excitement of the first reading.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dazzingly clever, deceptively complex. 6 Jan 2006
The most wonderful aspect of this book is the reader's slowly growing awareness that this is not "just" another plot-driven novel with exotic locations and an unusual protagonist facing life-changing decisions, however fascinating they may be. It is also a deeply engrossing and carefully constructed tour de force which uses an exciting plot and a good deal of humor to make statements about the essence of selfhood, the importance of national and cultural identity, and, ultimately, our definitions of civilization and civilized behavior.
In a daring move, Kunzru throws the conventions of characterization to the winds. Instead of bringing his main character alive by showcasing his uniqueness and highlighting his different personal perspective on the world and its history, Kunzru does the opposite. In Pran/Rukhsana/Chandra/Pretty Bobby/Jonathan Bridgeman, he gives us a character who becomes, during the novel, less unique, more stereotypical--a man who sees life "in general" and from the perspective of whatever society he inhabits, a man who accepts the judgments and morality imposed upon him, acting, ultimately, "For God and England and the Empire and Civilization and Progress and Uplift and Morality and Honor."
Set primarily in the latter years of World War I and in the turbulent 1920's of the British Raj in India, the novel introduces Pran Nath Razdan, the beautiful, spoiled, and arrogant son of a wealthy court pleader in Agra. Banished from his home when his true status as a half Anglo is discovered, he must adapt to changed circumstances to stay alive. As the chief hijra of Fatehpur tells him when he assumes the role of Rukhsana and enters the harem of the Sultan, "We are all as mutable as the air! Just release...your body and you can be a myriad!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable first novel 19 Aug 2007
Ronald Forrester is an English forester in Simla, India, where he came to see what life was like in, ironically, a country without trees. In 1918 during a violent storm which floods the country, this difficult and taciturn man encounters a young woman called Armrita in a cave. After an expert and violent sex scene, the Englishman is killed by the flood and Armrita is taken to Agra to be married to Razdan, a distinguished court pleader who belongs to one of the highest and most distinguished castes in all Hindustan. Some months later, Armrita gives birth to a son, Pran Nath, who is actually Ronald Forrester's child, and dies after delivering the baby. A few years later, when Razdan learns that is son is the "bastard child of a casteless, filth eating, left-and-right-hand-confusing Englishman", he dies of shock. Now an orphan, Pran Nath is thrown out of the house by the chowkidar and becomes one of the many homeless of Agra.
So begins the epic life of a young boy of six in India. His odyssey-like journey will take him from Agra to the red light district of Bombay, then to the brick cloisters of the University of Oxford and finally to Fotseland, in Africa. It is the sad story of a man never understanding who he really is, neither really Indian nor really English, despite all his efforts. Mr Kunzru meditates on the construction of identity, self deprecation, miscegenation and racism in an ambitious and remarkable first novel.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Skin, Deep 22 April 2004
I loved The Impressionist. It's set in the first quarter of the twentieth century and tells the story of the first twenty-odd years of the life of Pran Nath Razdan. The book opens (though we don't know it yet) with his conception, and then takes us to the Indian city of Agra, where Pran Nath is the coddled and spoiled child of a high-profile lawyer. Pran Nath is an uncommonly beautiful child, with fairer skin than anyone else in his family - which it turns out is because his father is not his father at all. This is discovered just as Razdan pere dies, and Pran Nath is thrown out of the household and left to make his way in the world.
And make his way he does, by adopting different guises and roles, ultimately masquerading as an orphan Jonathan Bridgeman, where he studies at Oxford and goes off on an anthropological expedition with his sweetheart's father to Africa. The sections of the book cover one "identity" each, and it's notable from the first change that Pran Nath never really makes the decision to change his role himself: his impressions are thrust on him by fate. This is an early indicator of what becomes glaringly apparent as the novel progresses - that Pran Nath, Pretty Bobby, Jonathan Bridgeman or whoever, has no character of his own. He is a void at the centre of the novel. Clearly this is deliberate, or at least understood by Kunzru, as we learn from this passage, where our hero watches a real impressionist on stage:
"The man becomes these other people so completely that nothing of his own is visible. A coldness starts to rise in Jonathan's gut, cutting through the vodka. He watches intently, praying that he is wrong, that he has missed something. There is no escaping it.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars You won't be disappointed.
If you are looking for something to read - read this. You won't be disappointed.
Published 2 months ago by A. W.
4.0 out of 5 stars Novel plus
I found this so difficult to read because of its violent content in some parts but it fitted perfectly into the story and left me feeling quite sad at the lives so many people have... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Christine
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
This is a gripping read from nearly the start to the finish - I say nearly the start because the first few pages focus on a character who is not our main hero and I got a bit... Read more
Published 12 months ago by James Blades
5.0 out of 5 stars "...he cannot remember whether to be pleased or not..."
I spoke too soon about the book of the year - without doubt, this is the one. Sometimes you can go through a fallow period of books that don't quite touch any of your enthusiasms... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Eileen Shaw
4.0 out of 5 stars A tale of many stories
In his impressive and successful novel, Hari Kunzru explores the nature of identity. For some people a sense of belonging is very strong, whereas for others such feelings are mere... Read more
Published on 5 Jan 2012 by Philip Spires
4.0 out of 5 stars Loved it
This book is very gripping although it loses momentum towards the end, you can become completely absorbed by it. Read more
Published on 30 July 2011 by A. Golding
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant story, but a flat ending
I enjoyed this immensely. As other reviewers have said it's beautifully written and there is a lot to empathise with, including the central character's strange combination of... Read more
Published on 17 May 2011 by Chris Rust
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read
This was a good read, but like other readers have commented I felt the ending was lacking. Wouldn't stop me recommending it to others though - enjoy!
Published on 15 May 2011 by Sarahwoo
5.0 out of 5 stars This should be made into a film
This book just blew me away... it is brilliant on so many different levels. As a study of the Raj and British Imperialism it is sensitive and spot on. Read more
Published on 3 Mar 2011 by O
4.0 out of 5 stars The Impressionist
This is the first novel by this writer and sometimes it displays the faults common with first attempts i.e. Read more
Published on 13 May 2009 by Reckoner
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