When it was announced that Naeem Murr’s novel “The Perfect Man” was on the longlist of 19 books for the £50,000 Man Booker prize, some commentators assumed he was Indian-American (“the Desi-American author” as some US-based websites described him).
This supposition arose from Murr’s name, and from the fact that the central character in his novel is a half-Indian boy, Rajiv Travers. In fact Murr is half Lebanese. He has lived in the US for many years, and his novel is set in Pisgah, a small town in Missouri.
Rajiv is the son of an Indian mother who has been abandoned in India by his English father. The novel begins in 1947 when Rajiv’s father brings him from India to London to be looked after by his uncle and his wife. By 1954 Rajiv’s uncle’s wife can no longer tolerate uncontrollable, witty Rajiv who is a brilliant mimic. Her husband takes Rajiv to America to spend the summer with another of the boy’s uncles, Olly. But shortly before they arrive Olly commits suicide and Rajiv is left with his girlfriend Ruth.
Ruth makes her living writing romantic novels. As Olly said in a letter: “We have a great time choosing people in this small town for her to transform into the heroes and heroines of these tawdry worlds.”
Rajiv remains in Pisgah with Ruth, and becomes close friends with four other children. The novel tracks them as they grow into adolescence and beyond. As in his previous two novels “The Boy” and “The Genius of the Sea”, Murr is interested in exploring the impact of an outsider on others.
The dense, complex novel is lit up by Murr’s striking use of language and gift for drawing memorable characters, and is a most pleasurable read. Successive chapters move backwards and forwards in time. A key event took place in 1952, when the autistic brother of one of Rajiv’s friends, the troubled Lew, died in mysterious circumstances. The secrecy around the death is set to detonate years later.
Murr may not be Indian, but another longlisted writer is. She is Kiran Desai, longlisted for her second novel “The Inheritance of Loss”. Kiran is the daughter of Anita Desai, whose novel “Fasting, Feasting” was shortlisted for the Booker in 1999.
The Man Booker shortlist of five books will be announced on September 14 and the winner on October 10. There is a good chance that India will feature on the shortlist, through an author, or a character in a novel, or both.
Saudi Gazette September 5 2006