“The Buddha of Suburbia” by Hanif Kureishi

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.

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There are 4 comments

  1. I have two comments, Andrew: one so many novels these days are disappointing once you get into them, and secondly would you have been so drawn to those first chapters if the novel had been set somewhere you weren’t so familiar with? Because you mention the characters as if they actually exist, I suspect so. However some of the appeal had to be the familiarity of the setting, a suburbia you know but representative of the whole of that type. I felt I wanted to read it when you detailed the characters, but then not if the novel wavers.


  2. Hi Sarah,
    I do think the familiarity was a particular draw for me, especially because where I grew up is the kind of place that never normally gets mentioned in any kind of cultural context. But I do think I would have enjoyed it if it had been set elsewhere. I wonder, though, about my reaction to the second half. Maybe if I didn’t have the particular interest in the original suburban setting, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed when it changed tack and went off into London and New York orgies. If you do read the book, I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts are.
    All the best

  3. I absolutely loathe “The Buddha of Suburbia.” More than loathe. There are not words to describe the revulsion on a mental and spiritual level that this book aroused within me. It is by far the worst book I’ve ever read. And this is coming from someone who’s read thousands.

    I read it about five years ago. It’s taken me that long to cool down to write this more level-headed review.

    When I first began “The Buddha of Suburbia,” this book struck me as ridiculous, if nothing else. By about page 100, when it was clear that things were not beginning to brighten, this book simply became MONOTONOUS. By page 150 I had reached the THIS AUTHOR IS SERIOUSLY DISTURBED point. By page 200, I was literally gagging and sick at heart.

    What, you may ask, provoked this response? Page upon page upon page of lovingly described ugliness and perversion, bestiality and superficiality, orgies, stupidity and sex. On and on and on and on and on. NOTHING ELSE. The characters are all the lowest, basest dregs of society, doing the worst imaginable things to each other and to themselves. The author seems to have no real rationale or purpose, other than drenching us with sex and idiocy. I see little difference between this and a porno.

    I cannot even fathom the state of mind necessary to write something like this. It must be excessively unpleasant. Diseased and repulsive. Just like this book.

    I’m usually quite understanding of books. I often display more tolerance than most people for the little idiosyncrasies that many authors have. But honestly, this book was nothing BUT one huge idiosyncrasy. The extremity to which the author took things just got under my skin. And it has an unpleasant atmosphere that I don’t like at all.

    The book is also very unoriginal and dull, arising, no doubt, from the
    repetition of the above-mentioned mayhem.

    Presenting sexual excess/ugliness and its consequences realistically is one thing, but this is wallowing in it, loving it, and holding it up as a wonderful experience. Never before have I encountered such an attitude taken to the extremes presented here. No matter what his stated rationale may be, the author (I hate to say it) is apparently a very sick individual, who adores and glorifies perversion and bestiality (at least at one point), wrapping himself up in a warm blanket of orgies and meaningless sweat. Absolutely sickening.

    I vowed to myself that I would finish this stupid book, and I did. I then promptly tore it in half, and then into tiny pieces, and then threw it in the garbage where it obviously originated. It is the only book I have ever deliberately damaged or mistreated in any way, and it deserved it. Ptui.

  4. Hi Eric
    Wow, you really hated this book!! As you can see from my review, I didn’t feel as strongly about it as you did, but I did share some of the same concerns. Unlike you, I did like the earlier sections in suburbia, and it was only in the later stages that I felt the story lost its way. I wouldn’t really agree that all the characters were the lowest, basest dregs of society – I felt empathy for many of them, although they were mostly the more marginal characters.

    Thanks for reading my review anyway, and for posting yours. I’m interested in the fact that you finished the book – normally if I hate something that much, I stop reading and move on to something else. Why did you vow to finish it?

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