Western Lane, a moving portrait of a British-Gujarati family stunned by grief, is written with a striking minimalism. Chetna Maroo, it seems, wants us to inhabit her characters’ reality through a sort of literary osmosis, without the distractions of a distinctive voice or anchoring details (clues suggest we’re in 1980s Bedfordshire). Her prose is rigorously pared back, as though she’d prefer to dispense with messy language altogether, and so lithe and unobtrusive is it that when I came across the novel’s only clunky sentence, I was startled.
The story itself flows around absences and things left unsaid. We meet Gopi as an eleven-year-old. Her mother has just died and she lives with her two older sisters, Mona and Khush, and their father, known as Pa. Soon after his wife’s funeral, Pa decides that the girls’ hobby, squash, will become a daily routine. ‘We’d been playing squash and badminton twice a week ever since we were old enough to hold a racket,’ explains Gopi, ‘but it was nothing like the regime that came after.’ Before and after school, and on weekends, Pa supervises their training drills at a local sports centre, Western Lane. And so the impossible question of how to cope without Ma is displaced, with little time or energy left for unruly emotions or shared mourning.
In the game’s mental discipline and athletic artistry, Gopi finds ‘a feeling of having been rescued’. Driven on by Pa, who hardly communicates except to direct her training, she becomes a fearsome player. Her sisters lose interest, but for Gopi and Pa, the world narrows to this single