A few weeks ago I joined a book discussion group on Discord, in hopes of hearing from fellow readers about books I normally wouldn’t have picked up. The first suggestion was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I had already read some years ago. The second was this, The Buddha of Suburbia, the debut novel by Pakistani-English writer Hanif Kureishi.
It’s interesting how reading a new book can influence your opinions of other works. The Buddha of Suburbia takes on themes of assimilation and alienation for an immigrant to a new world, much like Londonstani and A Bend in the River, which I’ve reviewed before. Reading another take on these themes made me appreciate the subtleties in A Bend in the River much more, and made me read the twist ending of Londonstani as a bit more gimmicky and shoehorned than I originally saw. But enough on old books, let’s get to the new.
The Buddha of Suburbia concerns Karim Amir, a half English, half Indian young man navigating his existence and contemplating what he wants for the future. His father, Haroon, abandons his wife and family for an aspiring socialite and spreading Eastern philosophy as the so-called ‘Buddha of Suburbia’. Karim often finds himself caught in the middle, and bounces from friend to friend in an effort to find his own purpose. This takes him to London and America, in a world of drugs, intellectualism, and erotic excess. All the while, there are undercurrents of class warfare through punk music and socialism. Some characters are shameless social climbers, and others embrace the counterculture with open arms. Even more interesting is the question of race in such a movement. Kureishi is critical of such movements at times, showing that there’s little room for minorities in a ‘white struggle’. The concept of intersectionality is commonplace today, but considering this book was written in 1990 about the events of the 1970s, it’s really quite remarkable how relatable it all feels.
And we pursued English roses as we pursued England; by possessing these prizes, this kindness and beauty, we stared defiantly into the eye of the Empire and all its self-regard–into the eye of Hairy Back, into the eye of the Great Fucking Dane. We became part of England and yet proudly stood outside it. But to be truly free we had to free ourselves of all bitterness and resentment, too. How was this possible when bitterness and resentment were generated afresh every day?
A highlight of Kureishi’s work is his characterization. This book has an ensemble cast and a variety of subplots and character arcs, and each one was compelling. None of these characters are perfect, far from it. At points it’s hard to find someone to root for. Haroon is absent-minded, Karim is flippant and self-absorbed, Charlie is fame-obsessed, and even Jamilla, who I probably liked most, is cold and haughty. In a way, these flawed figures is what made the book stand out. While some parts meander along, hoping for greater significance, the dynamic characterization made me devour this book in a matter of days. I hoped for some sort of resolution and a few tied-up ends.
That didn’t happen.
Like a lot of the books I’ve reviewed, this book sputters to a weak ending that ignores several of the thematic elements brought up earlier on. Characters are left in conflict, and even Karim is left to reflect on this state of uncertainty. As a snapshot of his life, it makes sense, but as a novel it provides no payoff to the reader. I’m not even asking for a happy ending, but more for some sort of settlement. Perhaps this just speaks to me as a lover of conventional story arcs. I could’ve done with a few more chapters to close what otherwise would’ve been an insightful, entertaining book.