2006_07_arts_krissareview.jpgIt’s not an easy feat to carry off slangy dialect, an authentic voice for your narrator, and a surprise ending all in your first novel. Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani does all that, for which it should be commended. As a bonus, it also read a little like the bastard lovechild between Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. Perhaps with a little Martin Amis and Zadie Smith in the lineage. Not bad sires, all in all.

Londonstani tells the story of four young men living the desi lifestyle in Houndslow – desi, as Malkani defines it in his glossary, being “the self-referential term for the Indian diaspora that refers to people and culture”. There’s Hardjit, a Sikh muscle boy obsessed with honor and money; Ravi, who thinks of nothing but women; Amit, a Hindu whose older brother’s upcoming wedding is causing a mother of all cultural headaches; and Jas, our narrator, whose tough-boy language and valiant attempts to fit into this little clique that’s adopted him don’t conceal the sensitive and intelligent guy underneath, no matter how many times he says “innit”. They’re rudeboys, retaking their A-levels, coasting through their late teens without much of a future, and making some serious cash in the grey market of stolen mobile phones. It’s economics, innit.

Jas is the heart of this story. For all the shallowness of Hardjit’s agenda and Ravi’s lust, for all the potential depth of Amit’s struggle with his family, Jas is the specimen Malkani throws into his spotlight, examining everything about him – his desires, his fears, who he was before his little gang picked him up and taught him how to speak like a text message. One of Malkani’s great successes is how he transitions us slowly from Jas’s toughguy front to his true center. There isn’t a moment when we’re not seeing the desi world, these questions of honor and these cultural clashes, from Jas’s eyes – even when he’s obscuring his own cognizance of it behind rudeboy language. It’s a remarkable maintenance of character in a first novel.

And the language slides from startling to near-incomprehensible to shockingly funny. Again, it’s no easy feat to use such a heavily dialectical slang, and Malkani’s success rate with it is admirable. The fact that it’s also funny, so much of the time, denotes a seamless blending of authentic language with an authentic character. Jas, talking about Amit’s brother’s wedding:

Most a shitdrops cos people don’t get te right balance a respect an duty flowin between the Girl’s Side an Boy’s Side… It’s just like tuning one a them old radios, the ones that got knobs an dials. Get it just a little wrong an some loud, angry fuzz’ll come from some old auntyji or uncleji or other unemployed member a the family. Straight away, straight outta their mouthes like the radio aerial is the fillings in their sensitive teeth or someshit.

In its most successful moments, the language flows off the page and into your brain effortlessly. In its less successful moments, especially compounded with the dash-style indication of speaker (as opposed to quotation marks), you can find yourself reading over the same five-line exchange three times, knowing something crucial just happened in all those semi-abbreviated words and not knowing what it was. It’s the risk any writer runs with dialect.

The book has its stumbles. The last third of the book races far too quickly towards its ending, hurriedly grabbing stray bits of plot off the floor in a desperate attempt to make it out the door. Some of the characters that surround Jas are too one-dimensionally drawn for how much sway they have over our narrator. Sanjay, the smooth wealthy instigator of all the mobile-phone business, comes immediately to mind as a character whose almost Bond-villain-like surety and treachery is too flat, not subtle enough for the comic reality of Malkani’s London. And there’s an entire plot subsection about the economic future of Europe and VAT fraud that drags away from Jas’s remarkable narration – a moment where I remembered reading on the jacket that Malkani works at the Financial Times.

But it has its triumphs, and in the category of debut novelists who carry so strong and distinct a voice from so authentic a source, Malkani is in a rarefied crowd. And although the last hundred pages disappointed, the surprise ending – a trick that novelists have a very hard time pulling off – saves the story from that flagging decline and gives the end of the book a resounding and well-deserved flourish.