The narrator of The Alchemy of Desire is a part-time novelist and subeditor who sets about deconstructing the twin engines of his life, sex and storytelling. He is deeply in love with his beautiful wife Fizz, but somewhere the passion has faded; problems begin whenever he sits down to write, and culminate in his discovery of a chest full of cryptic diaries in the couple’s ramshackle new home in the foothills of the Himalayas. Written by an American lady, Catherine, who, three-quarters of a century earlier, became the frustrated companion of the brilliant but sadly (for her) homosexual son of the Nawab of Jagdevpur, the diaries detail her adventurous, sorrowful life in full: ultimately, her uncontainable desire for one of the palace cooks caused her life to implode. Our narrator becomes obsessed with her story, to the exclusion of his wife, who leaves him; but as Catherine’s monumental desire capitulates to bathos, he comes to the understanding that ‘the greatest glue between two people’ is love, not sex.
The narrator and his wife first meet in 1979, in Chandigarh, when they are both studying: it’s an ‘innocent time’, he says, both for them and for the nation, and much of the novel takes the form of an astonishingly randy Bildungsroman set against the increasing turbulence of an India