28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: The Impressionist (Paperback)
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. In between each impression, just at the moment when one person falls away and the next has yet to take possession, the impressionist is completely blank. There is nothing there at all."
Nonetheless this emptiness at the centre does mean it's hard to see The Impressionist as more than a high-class entertainment, despite its occasional probes into racial acceptance and social satire. Still, high-class it certainly is, and quite simply one of the best-written books I've read, word for word, in ages. Kunzru has a real way with novel little expressions, none of which I can trace now of course to cite in evidence, but take my word for it that the book is never dull or hackneyed in its 500 pages. And Pran Nath's blankness is amply balanced by the richness of the surrounding characters - I was constantly finishing little vignettes into the characters' pasts with a smile on my face of pure satisfaction. (The relating of a form of futures trading in a primitive society is particularly original and brilliant.) Even characters who only appear in a few lines have a curious vividness:
Rising up behind the main hall, the glasshouses appear like a miniature crystal palace, glittering in the sunshine. Mesmerized, Jonathan is approaching them across the back lawn, when a voice bellows out, stopping him dead in his tracks.
He wheels around to find a red-faced man leaning out of an upstairs window.
"What on earth do you think you're doing?"
"WHAT? I hardly think you should be going anywhere over the grass. Regard! What you have wrought!"
Jonathan looks down, and sees that his shoes have left a trail of little bruises on the sleek green-striped surface.
"Lawn!" shouts the man. "Parents, masters and senior domestic staff only! Exceptions! Prefects on Sundays! All upper-form boys on Founders Day between two and four in the afternoon! Now get off!"
Gingerly Jonathan steps onto a gravel path. The window is slammed shut. He thinks for a moment, takes out his pocket book and writes: further demonstration of the significance of lawns. Englishness seeps a little deeper into his skin.
However I expect that the absence of human interest from the central character's blankness will stop The Impressionist from becoming the Corelli/Birdsong-level word of mouth hit that it richly deserves to be. Nonetheless Kunzru is a talent to watch who will, I hope, go on to do even greater things.