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Customer Review

HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 November 2002
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! An army!"
In successive roles in other locations, he learns to create impressions, to become stereotypical of the cultures in which he finds himself, to be whatever someone wants him to be, from a male prostitute and procurer in India to a student at Oxford and an assistant to an anthropologist in Africa. Along the way, he learns that it pays to be British.
Satirical touches (not the least of which are some of the characters' names), broad humor, and irony make reading this story a continual delight, despite the author's occasional lapses into irrelevant background material for some of the characters. The descriptions are vibrant, the observations of human nature are incisive, the message is important, and the conclusion is wonderfully appropriate. Mary Whipple
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