on 17 September 2009
Hailing from the borough of Bromley myself (albeit growing up there in a different decade), this book has been on my "I really should read that" list for years. Having finally got round to it (the reading part took only a matter of days, you'll see why below) I thought I may as well do the book the courtesy of setting out my humble thoughts on it.
The pace of the book is quick. It's an uptempo tale taking you from the south London suburbs, to well-heeled Kensington, glamorous New York and back again before you know it. Characters that are bonkers. Characters you'd love to have a beer with. Characters you have an ache in your chest for out of pure sympathy. Characters you would literally do an about turn in the street to avoid.
I don't think it's the place of these reviews to spell out the plot, and other people have taken the trouble in other reviews in any case. But Kureishi captures that longing for meaning and excitement that all (normal) teenagers and people in their early 20s experience, to a tee. People of that age are rightly selfish and need to take things for granted in order to find out what really matters to them.
This book captures that spirit of freedom in life. You never know where you might end up, who with and why. You also never know when you might surprise yourself and just go after something completely different in life to everything you had worked for and previously valued. It's a breath of fresh air and Kureishi's blunt and often brutal prose exploits that essence to the max. He writes it as it is and I like that.
For me the best character in the book is the surburb itself. As a surbabnite who is strangely simulatenously proud and ashamed of the fact, Kureishi just nails the surburban environment with all its unknown rules, hierarchies and bizareness. Even though the Three Tuns pub referred to in the book, is now a faceless chain Italian restauarant, the social snobbishess held by those who live in Chislehurst to those that slum it in Penge remains as true as ever.
The character he creates in the suburb itself just provides the most compelling backdrop for the characters and plots placed on top.
A great read that manages to be both funny and beautifully written. A great combination you don't always find.
on 22 February 2001
A humerous, intellectual and very observed insight into the growing up of a British Indian, his sexuality, viewpoints, career and family life. Based in the late 70s it encompasses wonderfully all the pains and joys of school to adulthood from the perspective of the voyeur, or should that be involved observer?
on 8 June 2012
For years I was put off reading this book, I thought it had some kind of agenda in mocking suburbanites from an Asian perspective. Well, it does have an agenda - it takes the mick out of pretty much everyone, yes, the Abigail's Party brigade with their worship of central heating and double glazing, the world of Margot and Jerry Ledbetter. But it is even more damning of the Asian community, or perhaps I should say the older generation, who of course would be grandparents today. In particular their misogyny and patriachal nature, and we witness the ebb and flow of power between the sexes.
Some on this site complain about a lack of a plot. Well, I suppose they'd say the same of The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis, it's that sort of narrative. Mainly, it's about a young suburban teenager, Karim, who finds his cosy existance blown apart when his dad, a first generation immigrant who never quite made good, is coopted by the charismatic and ambitious Eva into giving lectures of buddhism and enlightenment. The book is wonderfully observed, and it charts the way Karim hopes to use the tailwind of this development to get away from the boring, suburban life and taste the exotism of the city. There are some very funny lines here, but it's true that the lead narrater doesn't propel events, usually stuff happens to him.
Being a bloke, I'd call it out for a couple of things. Firstly, the narrator has a superiority complex. This is amusing if you also have a bit of a superiority complex. Just about everyone he meets, he skewers in the prose, although of course if Karim were such a naive fellow, coming of age, he wouldn't be that insightful. Really, it's the author who is delivering these verdicts. It is a very satisfying method, it's the old Clark Kent/Superman duality, where one minute you can step out of your put-upon self and feel supreme. Even PG Wodehouse did it, as a lot of the very funny lines ('She had a laugh like the cavalry crossing a tin bridge') would be beyond a chump like Bertie Wooster. To be fair, Karim would be the sort who slyly keeps his own counsel about certain types, a goalhanger in life.
Secondly, the sex is a bit out there. Kureishi seems to using promiscuous sex to turn on the reader, fair enough, but it's as if he being less well observed here. I'm not sure the type of bloke we have depicted here would get it so much, even if he is good looking. Certainly he's very relaxed about his bisexuality, there never seems to be any doubt if another bloke will be up for it.
Thirdly, the timeline is a bit out of wack. The events seem to call for a story over a two-year period, but we go from Beatles Abbey Road period to Bowie, then punk and The Pretenders. The Pretenders only got going in 1978! The author's reach seems to exceed his grasp, as if he's aiming for an epic along the lines of Our Friends in the North. I wasn't too sold on one of the characters becoming a major rock star either, it breaks the suspension of disbelief, we know it didn't happen, unless it's true the guy is Billy Idol (it seems to fit) and the author didn't want to get sued.
Anyhow, I read this in a week and loved it. Surprised to see it is on the syllabus, more books like this should be in my view. It shouldn't be all Dickens and Austen.
A great comic novel set in the 1970s, The Buddha of Suburbia is a coming-of-age story centred on Karim. At the start of the story he is a teenager, desperate to escape suburbia. His chance comes when his father reinvents himself as an unlikely new-age guru and runs off with another woman. It did remind me in some ways of Adrian Mole (though it is not written in diary format), particulary the early chapters. There's the same laugh-out-loud observational comedy and dry humour, the same eccentricity, and the same hint of pathos underlying it all. But it's probably a more literary novel than Mole.
Class is an important theme, as is race, but the latter is not made the focus of the book. The differences between the lives and values of the different social classes in Britain are shown to be as big and difficult to bridge as those of race. I liked that the novel took a different angle on the popular culture-clash issue, and presented it in a fresh and original way.
Karim's narrative voice is full of dry wit, and the characters are wonderfully described. Even though some were eccentric, all were believable. The book spans a number of years and is very well paced, showing how characters grow and develop - or stay the same - over time. It is always interesting and entertaining, and you're never too sure what will happen next, although it's not gripping in the conventional thriller sense. Just a minor warning - there's a lot of sex and drugs and punk music - the first quite graphic in places - so the easily offended reader may wish to think again. But it was nothing unreasonable and nothing worse than you'll find in many modern novels.
If you want a book that is funny and that will make you think, this will do the job nicely. It's particularly strong for saying it's a first novel, and I'd be keen to read Kureishi's subsequent works.
on 28 October 2012
This novel wasn't what I expected...in a good way! The book had me laughing out loud at several parts, and is brilliantly insightful. The novels protagonist is half British, half Indian, but doesn't feel like he fits into either of these identities. He is confused about his life, sexuality, his morality....and tells us all this with some of the funniest dialogue I've ever read. You won't regret reading this.
on 22 July 2013
What a story. Difficult to extricate if you are a desi in Inglistan. don't believe me? Check this out.
'In the suburbs people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness. It was all familiarity and endurance: security and safety were the reward of dullness.' Huh, what do you think? Want more, here is a bit of a dialogue between an old immigrant (Anwer, owner of grocery store) and his freshly imported son in law (Changez) from India, specially brought in as extra help with the shop.
Anwer had reclaimed Changez and was patiently explaining to him about the shop, the wholesaler and financial situation. Changez stood there looking out of the window and scratching his arse, completely ignoring his father in law, who had no choice but to carry on with his explanation. As Anwer was talking Changez turned to him and said, 'I thought that it would much more freezing in England than this?'
Anwer was bewildered, irritated by his non sequitur.
'But I was speaking about the price of vegetables,' said Aner.
'What for?' asked Chagez in bewilderment. 'I am mailny a meat-eater.'
The book is filled with many tensions in the immigrant community of Asians in England. Between themselves, the Whites, and fresh arrivals like Changez.
on 10 January 2002
Hanif Kureshi introduces us to the world of Karim, who, as a Seventeen year old boy with an English mother and an eccentric Indian father, is searching for his own identity. Karim is more of an English youth than the exotic Indian boy as everyone percieves him to be. Indeed, his English step-brother is more exotic than him. Karim experiments with new ideas in his search to find himself, he is not pinned down to any place or group of people. Instead, he is able to mix with anyone, and move around in any social circle in 1970s London. It is his hybridity that allows him to do this. He is neither one thing or another.
A very amusing and thought provoking novel. It opens the world up, and at the same time it makes it seem more familiar to us. We learn a great deal about ourselves through it.
on 27 October 2013
This is quite a lengthy book with a large cast of characters. Parts of it are distinctly absurd but it has a racy plot and interesting characters. It regularly swings from farce to pathos. Some people might object to bad language but it adds authenticity.
on 17 May 2013
Amusing tale of life in south London's suburbia, as experienced by a not-entirely Indian family in the late seventies/early eighties, told from the point of view of the teenage son. Some very interesting observations throughout and an enjoyable read, especially for anyone from this area and time zone. The character in the title kind of fades away two-thirds in, and the ending is a little lame, possibly allowing for a B.o.S. 2! But you couldn't help warming to the characters who were richly observed and even parodied in some cases by the main character, Kalim. Style of writing very fluid and easy-to-read; a satisfying book.
on 11 December 2010
I grew up in Beckenham, the exact part of London suburbia in which this novel is set. To my knowledge it's the only time a novel has ever been set in Beckenham - in fact, it's probably the only time a novel has even mentioned Beckenham in passing.
So I very much enjoyed the opening chapters of the book, narrated by the teenaged Karim and telling of his father who becomes the 'Buddha of Suburbia'. I loved the way that the father is presumed to know the secrets of 'Eastern' wisdom simply because he is Indian. It's a wonderful lampooning of a certain type of white middle-class person who fetishises the exotic.
After while, though, the novel gets bored of Beckenham and suburbia altogether, and moves into central London and theatre types and orgies and New York and S&M and more orgies. The father becomes a peripheral figure, and the book becomes something else. I felt as if Kureishi had so many things he wanted to satirise that he tried to cram all of them into a single book. Maybe he just didn't feel there was enough mileage in taking the piss out of suburbanites for 250 pages. But I was disappointed to see the territory of my childhood - Beckenham, Penge, Chislehurst and the rest of it - so swiftly abandoned.
While the later parts of the book were sometimes entertaining, I wasn't really sure where the story was going. I think there's plenty to say about suburbia and I really liked what Kureishi was saying - it felt fresh and interesting. I wish he'd stuck to suburbia and told us more about his father, more about his English mother, more about the uncle who owns a shop in Penge, more about the odd arranged marriage of Jamila and Changez. I think there was plenty of material there for a great suburban novel, perhaps even The Great Suburban Novel. But evidently Kureishi didn't, and so the action kept shifting to new places and characters and, to me, lost something in the process. It was still entertaining and worth reading, but left me a little disappointed in the end.