I put up my hand for Neel Patel’s Tell Me How to Be in response to the heartfelt, very personal enthusiasm of its editor. There’s such a difference between that and the hype that so often puts me off. Patel’s debut brings together a mother and her two sons one year after the sudden death of the man who dearly loved them all.
This is the problem with lies: they always circle back to the truth
To the shock of Akash and Bijal, Renu has sold the family home in Illinois, planning a new life in London. They’ve come to stay for their father’s puja and to clear out the belongings left behind when each of them left home. An aspiring songwriter, Akash lives in Los Angeles, still not out to his family, the difficult son with a drink problem and an insecure future while Bijal appears to be a beacon of success. Renu is busy tying up the loose ends of her long marriage to Ashok, already chasing the dream of a reunion with the man she considers the love of her life after making contact with him on Facebook. All three are hiding secrets from each other, all are unhappy, but it is Renu and Akash who take centre stage as their stories of love and longing unfold.
My rage lived inside me, a fiery thing, glowing like hot embers, brighter each day. This was his life. His dream. Not mine
Patel explores themes of racism and homophobia through Akash and Renu’s alternating narratives, each addressed to their first loves. Both are love stories, both are sad, sometimes dark, but brightened by the occasional flash of humour. Renu’s book group’s well-meaning attempts to understand her ‘culture’ which is not hers at all and their failure to recognise their efforts as racist were a neat touch. Renu’s yearning for her lost love has left her prickly, judgemental and blind to her husband’s adoration. Her apparent disgust at the slightest hint of his sexuality has paralysed Akash’s efforts to be honest with her. The potent mixture of small town racism and homophobia together with the strain of living a lie has sent him down a self-destructive path which only results in more opprobrium from his mother. Skilfully executed, Patel’s novel is absorbing and at times heartrending, ending on a note of hope and a flash of self-knowledge while neatly avoiding schmaltz.
Trapeze: London 9781398705241 336 pages Hardback