Review: Still Lives by Reshma Ruia (2022)

Blurb

‘The glow of my cigarette picks out a dark shape lying on the ground. I bend down to take a closer look. It’s a dead sparrow. I wondered if I had become that bird, disoriented and lost.’

Young, handsome and contemptuous of his father’s traditional ways, PK Malik leaves Bombay to start a new life in America. Stopping in Manchester to visit an old friend, he thinks he sees a business opportunity, and decides to stay on. Now fifty-five, PK has fallen out of love with life. His business is struggling and his wife Geeta is lonely, pining for the India she’s left behind. One day PK crosses the path of Esther, the wife of his business competitor, and they launch into an affair conducted in shabby hotel rooms, with the fear of discovery forever hanging in the air.

Still Lives is a tightly woven, haunting work that pulls apart the threads of a family and plays with notions of identity. Shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize.

Review

I am a massive fan of Renard Press, who not only publish beautiful new editions of classic works, but also push the boundaries with exciting new fiction. After absolutely loving their recent offerings This Good Book and The Green Indian Problem, I was delighted to be given the chance to read an advance copy of Reshma Ruia’s novel. Many thanks to the lovely Will for sending me a proof copy in exchange for an honest review.

Speaking of honesty, for personal reasons the subject matter of this book is one that slightly made my heart sink when I read the blurb, and I wasn’t sure I’d be in the emotional space to be able to cope with it. However, Ruia’s incisive, deftly plotted book completely won me over. It is so nuanced, so intricately layered with all the debris and clutter of accumulated disappointments, heartache, longings and all the mess that comes with the business of living life. Nothing here is clear-cut; nothing is quite as simple as it seems at first.

I did not like PK, but I have never had a problem with unlikeable protagonists, and his delusions and lack of awareness make for compulsive reading. I felt for Geeta, of course, but I also found myself feeling for Margaret, his long-suffering assistant, who could definitely have done a much better job of running the business than PK! I think it’s a first for me to want to shake a character and say “sort out your business plan, you fool!” Esther, too, definitely deserved the odd shake. Their affair plays out so realistically – the startling excitement of its beginning, the impossibility of walking away, the hints of disillusionment creeping in. There is such subtlety in the writing in this story – it really is beautifully crafted.

For me, the centre of the book is Amar, PK and Geeta’s son. PK’s attitude towards him is often pretty vile, and Geeta’s indulging of him is also sometimes hard to watch, but the real genius of the book is the way you can almost feel Amar clamouring for page space, to be understood, to be looked at, and yet, in the very plot itself, he is sidelined, dismissed, treated as an annoyance and a disappointment by his father, and, despite being his mother’s world, her coddling and excuses serve him little better. I don’t know quite how this incredible literary trick is pulled off, but this is, somehow, a book about Amar without being about him. God, it’s clever.

The final brilliant thing about Still Lives is the way Ruia creates a sense of tension, of the inevitability of disaster, and yet, when it hits, it is completely unexpected. I can’t say much more about the ending, but it is powerful, and it made me re-evaluate everything that had come before. I love the idea that even a first person confessional narrative can almost ‘miss the point,’ or rather, can have hidden truths within it that even the narrator can’t see. I don’t know if I am explaining this well at all – what I’m trying to say is that Still Lives does something really intelligent and original, something that I don’t think I’ve seen very often at all. I’m going to be thinking about this book for a long time.

Once again, I want to thank Renard Press for bringing us such exciting work, and for introducing me to another wonderful writer. I’ll definitely be seeking out Reshma Ruia’s short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness – I can’t wait to read more work by this author.

About the Author

Reshma Ruia is an award-winning author and poet. She has a PhD and Master’s in Creative Writing from Manchester University, as well as a Bachelor and Master’s from the London School of Economics. Her first novel, Something Black in the Lentil Soup, was described in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy’. She has published a poetry collection, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties, and a short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness; her work has appeared in international anthologies and journals, and she has had work commissioned by the BBC. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani – a writers’ collective of British South Asian writers. Born in India and brought up in Rome, her writing explores the preoccupations of those who possess a multiple sense of belonging.

Still Lives by Reshma Ruia is published by Renard Press and is available to purchase here.

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