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Booker 2023: Western Lane by Chetna Maroo

Now that Gopi’s mother has died, it is up to her and her sisters to try and keep their father from falling apart. The only thing he still seems capable of is taking the girls to the squash court and even there, he becomes increasingly distracted, leaving them to their own training – until, one day, he realises Gopi’s talents and finds a new focus. When everything else is up in the air, uprooted by her mother’s death, the young girl finds purpose and structure on the court. She practices every day, neglects school as much as Pa neglects his job. Soon, the family is depending on the money her oldest sister Mona brings home from her job. But there is a tournament for Gopi coming up and in their grief, father and daughter seem to be convinced that, if only she wins everything will be alright.

On paper, there is so much in this novel – tragedy and grief, family and loneliness, trial and triumph, love and pain. On reading, there is primarily one thing: squash. I wanted to get to know devastated and uncommunicative Pa, speechless in face of his loss. I wished to see more of Mona and Khush, hurt and rebellious as they are forced into roles they are yet to young for. There is so much emotion in here but it is buried underneath all that squash and while I was intrigued to see how Gopi uses psort to cope with trauma, I just found myself bored with these tireless descriptions of a sport I have absolutely no interest in. And I have loved Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, with zero interest in baseball, so I know it is possible to find a novel that does both.

What is fascinating here are the dynamics of sisterhood and the close-knit Gujarati community in London, but I never quite got enough of that in this short novel. Chetna Maroo is doubtlessly talented, but her prose, though well-crafted, did not move me anywhere near as much, as could easily have been expected with a subject as tragic as this. I believe it might not have helped her debut to be nominated for the Booker Prize, when it is up against such heavyweights. Then again, knowing the Booker history, she might just win the whole thing…

Published by Picador, 2023

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