Most readers, like me, probably encountered Nikesh Shukla first as the editor of The Good Immigrant, but he’s also a novelist in his own right. The One Who Wrote Destiny is his third novel, and it’s distinguished by its verve, humour and thoughtfulness.
When Mukesh left Kenya in the 1960s, he imagined himself studying as an accountant in London – not getting dragged into amateur dramatics and race riots in Keighley. However, this unlucky turn of events did lead him to meet his future wife. A generation down the line, Mukesh’s two children tell their own stories. Neha, obsessed with programming, is dying of lung cancer before she feels she’s had a chance to really live, while her twin brother Rakesh is trying to launch his career as a stand-up comedian while not having to always talk about race. Meanwhile, both twins wonder what happened to their Ba, who looked after them in Kenya when they were young, but who they haven’t seen since. All four of these characters narrate their own sections of the novel, but their narratives are interspersed with bits from secondary characters who briefly intersect with their lives, which both adds interesting variation and can feel a little choppy.
At its best, The One Who Wrote Destiny is both funny and thought-provoking on questions of race, cultural identity and heritage. Much of the best material is showcased in the sections of the novel narrated by Mukesh and Rakesh, and the relationship between father and son is also very well-drawn. Mukesh finds it difficult to understand his son’s anger over things like ‘girls wearing bindis at parties’ after the racial violence he experienced as a young man. Rakesh struggles with how to position himself as a comedian, knowing that while his material on race is often warmly received, he could also be accused of selling out. His sister Neha is his fiercest critic, arguing that he makes white people laugh about things that they ought to take seriously. When Rakesh is performing at the Edinburgh Festival, and somebody yells at him to ‘Fuck off back to where you came from’ there’s a sense that Mukesh feels the abuse more deeply than his son, because he recognises the deep structural racism in which it’s rooted. ‘How dare they interrupt my son?’ he thinks, while Rakesh is inclined to laugh it off. ‘Go back to where he came from? My bloody son is from Harrow.’ But despite the generational gulf between Mukesh and Rakesh, their bumbling clumsiness, both physical and emotional, means that they share a strong family resemblance.
It’s in its smaller examples of cultural appropriation that The One Who Wrote Destiny can feel a little derivative and repetitive. Shukla seems to be in direct conversation with his edited collection The Good Immigrant throughout the course of this novel, and occasionally this jolted me out of his fictional world, making me feel that I was hearing the author’s voice, not the characters. Some of these details work better than others. A riff on the silliness of ‘chai tea’ – ‘tea tea’, as one of the characters put it – is instantly recognisable from Shukla’s essay in The Good Immigrant but becomes a clever thread throughout the novel that links different characters. Other instances of repetition feel a bit lazier – one of the characters thinks very similar things to Shukla about the appropriation of ‘namaste’. Another character, who’s an actor, complains about always being cast as ‘wife of a terrorist’, which is familiar from ‘Miss L’s’ essay in The Good Immigrant. Shukla is generally very good on detail, so I wasn’t sure why he felt the need to repeat this material.
The One Who Wrote Destiny is uneven and structurally messy (the last section feels especially tacked on), but it’s full of such energy that I sped through it. I’ll definitely be turning to Shukla’s backlist.
Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, unlike The One Who Wrote Destiny, is not a novel that is primarily about race. As Evans notes in a very interesting interview: ‘I don’t say that I don’t write about race because I don’t think you can write about black characters without writing about race, it’s so deeply engrained… But I don’t want my characters to be hidden by that. I want to write about the things that really fascinate me, like the experience of middle age, identity crises.’ Writing about black lives without placing race front and centre is something that Evans pulls off very well. Ordinary People focuses on four people – Melissa, Michael, Damian and Stephanie – three of whom are black. Melissa’s family come from Nigeria, Michael’s and Damian’s from Jamaica, and they all, in different ways, feel the daily realities of being black in a white-dominated world. Michael is the most conscious of these small injustices (often to the impatience of his partner, Melissa), noting how often he’s the only black man in the room, and realising how different it is to sleep with a white woman who doesn’t share his lived experience. But Melissa’s narrative registers these things as well: for example, when she praises MAC makeup for having a range of brown skin tones, rather than the one or two that other brands provide. Evans’ subtlety means that these details feed into her characters’ identities almost invisibly.
However, if Ordinary People isn’t about race, what is it about? Much of the novel’s plot feels incredibly familiar. Both couples are well-off Londoners in their late thirties or early forties with small children. Melissa misses her full-time job in journalism, and is struggling to combine freelancing with child care, while envying Stephanie, who seems to effortlessly inhabit full-time motherhood. Both Damian and Michael wonder if this is all there is to life, and toy with the idea of leaving their partners. Michael starts drinking too much; Melissa struggles with the banalities of a soft play centre; both couples decide to holiday together in Spain. The novel repeats these tropes verbatim. Much is made of the differences between Melissa and Stephanie, and between Michael and Damian, but in reality their lives are very, very similar. While I agree with Evans that there should be more writing about black lives in London, this novel brings very little else to the table.
Frustratingly, there’s a hint of an interesting thread at the beginning and end of Ordinary People, which centres on Michael and Melissa’s new house. Having met an unwell child when she was looking around the property, Melissa starts to believe that the house is haunted. She’s especially worried about her own young daughter, Ria, who develops mysterious ailments such as dry hands and a persistent limp. Turning to her Nigerian mother for advice, she leaves onion halves around the house to ward off spirits, though she rejects the idea of sleeping with a whole plantain under her pillow. Melissa’s fears culminate in the last few pages of the novel, where Evans knots them expertly into her frustration and isolation as the primary carer. But this plot isn’t given nearly enough page-space throughout the rest of the novel for this climax to have the force that it needs. Evans is obviously a good writer – but I didn’t find her choice of material captivating here. I’m now intrigued to read her debut, 26a, which promises more in terms of the supernatural themes that are hinted at in Ordinary People.
I received free copies of both these novels from the publisher for review. They’re both out in the UK on the 5th April.