Hanif Kureishi's new novel takes the form of a confession. Like most guilt-ridden confessions it is elliptical and meandering and takes some time to get to the nub. Our narrator, Jamal Khan, tells us he is a ‘murderer’, but his victim's identity is not disclosed until 100 pages into the book. It is an effective way of baiting the narrative hook: only gradually do we get to the truth, via a series of flashbacks and stories within stories.
Despite this transgression, Jamal is a successful psychoanalyst – or ‘doctor of the soul’ – who has published a book, Six Characters in Search of a Cure. Nobody is more in need of a cure than the doctor himself. Jamal may have lived on the same page of the A-Z for all his adult life, in Shepherd's Bush, but he has traversed the alphabet of sin. Our pleasure-seeking hero has a passion for prostitutes and a predilection for drugs; as a young man he was torn between burglary and academia as a career. Now estranged from his wife Josephine, by whom he has a twelve-year-old son, he hangs out with his mouthy sister Miriam, who has few taboos and lots of tattoos. She is also dating his best friend Henry. Jamal has what Miriam calls ‘a dodgy past’, and the story explores how the neat, bookish boy grew up to be a pornographer churning out dirty books for a living.
Much of the pleasure of the novel lies in the incidental details and wry social observations. We are treated to Jamal's ruminations on sex, race relations (‘in Britain we are still called Asians, though we're no more Asian than the English are European’),