It acts as a pivot, of course, as any novel categorised as ‘crime fiction’ ought to, but is rendered unnecessary simply because this is much more than just a crime novel. There are criminals, but not the kind one usually associates with the genre. These are criminals with questionable motives, living out their lives in a small town where everybody knows — or, at the very least, presumes to know — what their neighbour is up to.
Brooks Town, where the tale is set, gives Anu Kumar the perfect setting from which to launch an examination of her characters and their motives. It helps that she has the tools, and is practised in the art of using them to effect. Everything, be it a road precariously clinging to the side of a hill or the state of a man’s sideburns, is described in prose that is carefully measured.
At the centre stands Charlotte Hyde, a curious figure who can best be described — in the words of American literary critic Wayne Booth — as an unreliable narrator. She is ineffectual and detached at times, prescient and decisive at others. Kumar’s narrative isn’t linear. Her narrator travels through time, picking up threads of one story, putting them down abruptly when another one catches her eye. It gives the novel a surprisingly hallucinatory tone, perfect for the supposedly sleepy town it is set in. Interestingly, the lives of Kumar’s characters also come into dramatic contact with India’s larger history playing out in the background.
The only thing this critic had a problem with can be explained by a principle expounded by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Often referred to as ‘Chekhov’s Gun’, it is a metaphor that could be applied to Kumar’s unusually long cast of characters: If a loaded gun appears in the first act of a play, it should be fired at some point in the future. If not, it need not appear at all. Putting aside that minor quibble, one hopes Anu Kumar writes again, and very soon.