I grew up in Beckenham, the exact part of London suburbia in which this novel is set. To my knowledge it’s the only time a novel has ever been set in Beckenham – in fact, it’s probably the only time a novel has even mentioned Beckenham in passing.
So I very much enjoyed the opening chapters of the book, narrated by the teenaged Karim and telling of his father who becomes the ‘Buddha of Suburbia’. I loved the way that the father is presumed to know the secrets of ‘Eastern’ wisdom simply because he is Indian. It’s a wonderful lampooning of a certain type of white middle-class person who fetishises the exotic.
After while, though, the novel gets bored of Beckenham and suburbia altogether, and moves into central London and theatre types and orgies and New York and S&M and more orgies. The father becomes a peripheral figure, and the book becomes something else. I felt as if Kureishi had so many things he wanted to satirise that he tried to cram all of them into a single book. Maybe he just didn’t feel there was enough mileage in taking the piss out of suburbanites for 250 pages. But I was disappointed to see the territory of my childhood – Beckenham, Penge, Chislehurst and the rest of it – so swiftly abandoned.
While the later parts of the book were sometimes entertaining, I wasn’t really sure where the story was going. I think there’s plenty to say about suburbia and I really liked what Kureishi was saying – it felt fresh and interesting. I wish he’d stuck to suburbia and told us more about his father, more about his English mother, more about the uncle who owns a shop in Penge, more about the odd arranged marriage of Jamila and Changez. I think there was plenty of material there for a great suburban novel, perhaps even The Great Suburban Novel. But evidently Kureishi didn’t, and so the action kept shifting to new places and characters and, to me, lost something in the process. It was still entertaining and worth reading, but left me a little disappointed in the end.