Books Read in 2021 – 10. The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi

Genre: Bildungsroman, Indian Literature

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1990

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Karim Amir lives with his English mother and Indian father. He is looking for adventure – preferably sexual but any sort of adventure will do. When his father starts to give lessons in mysticism and meditation, Karim is thrown into a new world of punks, creatives and he starts to move away from his childhood world.

Time on shelf: I’ve wanted to read this from the early nineties when I watched it on the telly. So although I have only recently acquired a physical copy, it has been on the list for a long time.

I like it when you start to read a book and from the very first lines, you know that you are going to enjoy it. That was the case with this one. Karim’s narration is lively and funny from the very first. It is pacy and exciting. It is never quite certain what will happen to him next. It’s a definite page turner.

Karim is on the cusp of adulthood. His identity is still quite fluid. He is English and Indian and he likes boys and girls so he doesn’t fit into any group fully although he tries really hard to do so. This makes him an interesting character as you can see his efforts to try to be what others want him to be. He is confidante to many but has to try to work out his own issues on his own.

Karim mostly sleeps with women but his great love is Charlie, the son of his father’s mistress, Eva. Charlie is attractive but vapid. He easily follows trends as he has no real opinions of his own. He is not worthy of Karim’s adoration which is unshakeable for most of the novel. Finding punk in its early days, Charlie changes his band to fit in with this exciting new movement and is successful without having any talent or caring particularly about anything. He wants fame and he finds it in America. He seems to represent the selling out of the punk ideal or the idea of capitalism as a destructive force. At least, finally Karim realises that he is not worth his time and comes back to take up an acting job in a soap opera.

Karim doesn’t just tell his own story – there are many others given as he describes the lives around him. There is his father, Haroon who leaves his English wife for a more glamourous version where he gives talks about meditation and mingles with the white middle classes who lap up his spiritual musings and Jamilla, Karim’s cousin whose father arranges for a husband to be sent to England from India. When she refuses, he goes on hunger strike. To name but two. There are a lot of minor characters as well. Sometimes Karim seems a little lost in amongst all this chaos and excitement as if his story is being drowned out by all these other voices and people.

The novel talks about race, class, sexuality and is an astute observation of the late seventies. Because of the energy of Karim’s narrative, this never seems political or heavy going. It uses Karim’s issues with finding his identity to highlight some of the issues in British society. It is easy to feel for Karim and hope for him and I was so relieved when he finally realised that Charlie was no good. At the end, he has certainly fulfilled his wish of moving away from his childhood home and he is surrounded by friends and family and appears happy. The main thing, however that is driving this happiness, is the fact he has money which suggests that this happiness may be short lived. I was hopeful for Karim at the end of the novel but I couldn’t say whether he would continue to be happy.

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