By Chetna Maroo
Fiction/Picador/Paperback/176 pages/$33.25/Amazon SG (amzn.to/3tdIekg)
For a novel about dealing with grief, Western Lane fails to connect readers with the characters’ sense of loss, preferring vague allusions that are lost behind the overwhelming focus on the sport of squash.
Squash is everything to 11-year-old Gopi. Days after her mother’s death, she finds solace in the court and rhythm of training at Western Lane, drastically changing her priorities in life and alienating her from her sisters.
Based in London, debut author Chetna Maroo broke into the publishing scene with force as her 176-page novel was shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize. In 2022, she received the Plimpton Prize for Fiction.
The Booker Prize is given to the best novel written in English and published in Britain and Ireland.
Through Gopi’s young eyes, it is difficult to get a sense of how she feels after the death of her mother. Most of her time is spent playing squash and observing her family’s grief, rarely mentioning her fading memory of her mother’s face and voice.
Her intensity on improving at squash – it is implied she dropped out of school to spend all her time training – matches her father’s borderline obsession.
Describing her love of the sport, Gopi thinks: “I thought of Pa, and of being on the court with Pa watching, and of the feeling when I forgot about Pa and I was just moving or striking the ball, and then the feeling when I wasn’t playing. I thought: A game can seem endless.”
Combined with Pa’s depressive downward spiral, the novel appears to condone this manner of grieving through the excuse of Gopi’s talent.
Her sisters, 15-year-old Mona and 13-year-old Khush, are entirely neglected by Pa as they are not as good at squash.
Gopi describes Mona’s second-hand parenting: “She was attentive to us, even kind. Sometimes we could feel the strain in her, the mental and physical burden of being something she was not.”
Single-handedly responsible for caring for the household, Mona is easily the unsung hero of the novel. But she is resentful towards Pa, questioning him about their dwindling finances, berating his continuous smoking and defying his wishes by getting a part-time job.
Meanwhile, Gopi’s young age causes her to prioritise squash over her sisters. The sport becomes her whole life, requiring immense sacrifices from those around her.
What remains is the uncomfortable idea that family neglect and a refusal to process grief are acceptable if one is talented enough at a sport.
If you like this, read: The Book Of Lost Things by John Connolly (Atria Books, 2006, $20.98, Amazon SG, go to amzn.to/3PwUVy1). In this coming-of-age novel, 12-year-old David mourns his mother’s death and finds himself drawn into a dark, twisted world through his books.