The Temple-goers, by Aatish Taseer | Luke and Jon, by Robert Williams | Chef, by Jaspreet Singh | The Return of Captain John Emmett, by Elizabeth Speller
The Temple-goers, by Aatish Taseer (Viking, £12.99)
Journalist Aatish Taseer has been hailed by VS Naipaul as the “Indian Bret Easton Ellis”, and his pulsating account of modern-day Delhi certainly shares Ellis’s ambition, if not his glum depravity. A young, wealthy writer (also called Aatish Taseer) moves through a world of easy privilege with girlfriend Sangoyita. Returning to Delhi after time in Europe and America, he attempts to produce his first book, while Sangoyita pointedly socialises. Joining a gym, Aatish meets the charismatic trainer, Aakash, a different sort of symbol of the new socially diffuse India, constantly “upgrading” himself while remaining immersed in his Brahmin-caste rituals. The rootless Aatish is captivated, and the pair blend hedonistic nights with temple-attending days, until Aakash is detained for a shocking murder. A coolly accomplished if oddly passionless novel.
Luke and Jon, by Robert Williams (Faber, £6.99)
Following his mother’s death in a car accident, 13-year-old Luke and his toymaker father move to another town where they live in a ramshackle house on top of a fell. Nearby is a hovel where Jon, a boy of Luke’s age, lives with his catatonic grandparents. Jon is jumpy, an avid imbiber of facts; Luke has unnerving bright green eyes and is already a committed painter. Both have specific anxieties: for Jon, the social services, for Luke, the inquest which might decide that his bipolar mother committed suicide. Meanwhile his father works through his grief by meticulously constructing a giant wooden horse to hide in the woods. Unusual, affecting, narrated in a deceptive faux-naïf style, this book won Williams the National Book Tokens Not Yet Published prize.
Chef, by Jaspreet Singh (Bloomsbury, £14.99)
The disputed region of Kashmir forms the elegiac backdrop to an episodic, image-rich work. Kirpal “Kip” Singh is a terminally ill chef summoned by his former employer, General Kumar, to cook one last feast for the wedding of his daughter. During the long train journey from Delhi to Srinigar, Kip recalls when, as a young, unassuming Sikh, he became trainee to eccentric Chef Kishen in the general’s camp near the Siachen glacier, where Kip’s soldier father had died years before. The chef becomes more than a mentor, and Kip’s culinary awakening is a baptism of fire. When the chef is dismissed for a recipe gaffe, Kip takes over, but his subsequent involvement with a Muslim prisoner compromises his allegiance. The story is choppy and complex, the time sequences confusing, but there is much heady beauty and serious intent.
The Return of Captain John Emmett, by Elizabeth Speller (Virago, £14.99)
Acclaimed writer Speller’s first foray into fiction is a robust, thoroughly researched endeavour. Tapping into the seemingly inexhaustible theme of World War I and its impact, it brings the action forward to 1920, yet much of the book is necessarily retrospective. Laurence Bartram narrowly escapes annihilation on the western front only to find his wife and baby son have died. Robotically moving through the days, he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of an old school friend. John Emmett never recovered from the war; shell-shocked, incarcerated, he apparently took his own life. Sympathy and growing mutual attraction lead Laurence to help Mary uncover the riddle of John Emmett’s final days and the secrets he carried with him from the battlefields. Speller is nicely at ease with the period and the unsettled nature of a world emerging from the fug of conflict.