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10 December 2017 @ 08:24 pm
Literary fiction of the highest order  
No One Can Pronounce My Name: A NovelNo One Can Pronounce My Name: A Novel by Rakesh Satyal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No One Can Pronounce My Name is a perfect example in the ongoing tired discussion on definitions of literary and genre fiction, and is there a difference and whether it matters. In genre fiction, the story (plot) is more important than style. In literary fiction, the writing (style) is essential. What this means for a reader is that a successful work of genre fiction must have a plot that is interesting in itself: murder, true love, zombie apocalypse--anything we don't often (or ever) encounter in our ordinary lives. A successful work of literary fiction draws the reader in regardless of plot, without the aid of lovers, dead bodies, or zombies. The way of telling the story, the author's voice, makes the story interesting. The characters are rarely heroes or villains, but something of both, with human flaws and virtues.

This is what Rakesh Satyal accomplishes in his second novel. The story of immigrants from India and their first generation children in Cleveland, Ohio, is told through the lives of characters who are typical of their age and background in some ways, unique in others, none so extreme as to be less, or more, than human. Satyal tells their stories with a mix of compassion and wit that is uniquely his own, recognizable to readers of his dazzling debut novel, Blue Boy. "The real danger of an insult ... was that it put into slurs what you put into poetry in order to protect yourself," the main character, Harit, thinks after a defining moment of truth. Harit, inexperienced and shy in social situations, approaching the car to go on a trip with friends "looked like someone checking to see if an animal were alive or dead." On the judgmental nature of Indians in groups: "They were all subjected to the sort of intense scrutiny that defined murder trials, purchasing a home, or sizing up jewelry."

No One isn't perfect. The plot line of Ranjana, the middle-aged wife and mother writing paranormal romance, is unconvincing in the way that any description of something completely beyond the experience of the writer must be. But this lack is balanced by the story of Harit's mother, Parvati, an extraordinary individual whose life is depicted in almost mythical terms, in succinct and evocative prose that left me breathless.

Satyal has achieved what every good writer must: he can write about others, characters who are not simply versions of himself, but treat them with the generosity, sympathy and respect that we rarely afford to anyone else.

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