By Chetna Maroo
In his novel The End of The Affair, Graham Greene writes: “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
Here, our 11-year-old protagonist, Gopi, chooses to narrate her story a few weeks after her mother dies, leaving her and her two older sisters in the care of their father. Long-listed for the Booker Prize 2023, Western Lane is set in late 1980s’ England and is a lucid, affecting tale of a family traversing through the phases of grief.
Gopi’s father, referred to as Pa, is grappling not only with his loss but also with the daunting responsibility of being the sole parent of three adolescent girls. After their domineering relatives tell him that he needs to occupy the girls with something in order to discipline them, he turns the girls’ weekly casual games into an intense training programme of squash at Western Lane, the sports centre near their home.
Why squash? Pa has fond memories of playing racket sports with his brothers, which he still reminisces about. The family has grown up watching replays of the formidable squash champion, Jahangir Khan’s matches. Khan comes up repeatedly throughout the novel and Pa keeps referencing Khan’s life struggles when faced with a dilemma.
A Booker Prize long-listed debut novel is a poignant tale about an athlete’s coming-of-age, growing up and grief
Pa recounts to the girls how Jahangir’s older brother, Torsam, was supposed to be the champion but he died young and Khan started training with their cousin later on. Two years after his brother’s death, he won the World Open Championship. For five years after that, he played 555 matches without a single loss. This journey of Khan, from tragedy to triumph, seems to anchor and inspire Pa through his own challenging moments.
Debut author Chetna Maroo’s sparse, elegant prose might seem ill-suited for a story where, on the surface, the action takes place primarily in squash courts. However, the real drama happens off the court.
As Gopi progresses from playing at Western Lane to eventually playing the final of the Durham and Cleveland Squash League, we see her and her family go through different stages of bereavement — from denial to mourning and then acceptance.
Maroo has a knack for depicting complex emotions in mere looks, silences and murmurs. In one instance, Pa glances at each of his daughters with a look that Gopi interprets as him dreading the days stretching ahead of him, “without Ma, with us.” The prose evokes the fresh sucker-punch of loss vividly.
Each member of the family deals with the loss differently and, at one point or the other, each of them is convinced that Ma is returning. Gopi’s sister Khush’s way of mourning her mother was speaking in her mother’s native language, Gujarati, “trying to get to Ma.” Her sisters found her speaking Gujarati on the landing of their house deep into the night, several times.
With their Ma, they had to listen closely, since she was not fluent in their first language, English, and they were weak in her mother tongue, Gujarati. “Maybe this was why we pulled at her, pushed into her, made ourselves physical in her presence.”
Our protagonist describes her oldest sister Mona with an overtly physical description that tells us about her role conflicts. “There was a sullenness about her … a tightness in her muscles, and a refusal of ease or rhythm in her movement.” Mona becomes impatient with their father’s inability to return to his work in the same way and, to combat the financial woes, she tries to take on the role of a surrogate parent at home.
This jeopardises her relationship with Pa. When she gets a job, she takes her sisters to London and treats Gopi to a brand new racket. When she excitedly shows it to Pa, he appreciates it with his words but his eyes and his body tells them “that in one day we had exposed him, left him behind, left him wide open to whatever was coming for him.”
Meanwhile, Gopi steps up her intense training at Western Lane, eventually practising against Ged, the 13-year-old son of an employee there. Maqsud, a Pakistani man, notices their talent and convinces Pa to register them for an upcoming tournament. As Gopi gets closer to Ged on the court, Pa gets closer to his mother outside the court. Once Gopi overhears him telling her. “The children. The girls. Sometimes I look at them and I think they will eat me.”
The girls start to view Ged’s mother as a rival to their mother and take rancorous measures against their father to keep him from forgetting their Ma. For Gopi, it becomes crucial that Ma’s presence maintains a hold on him but, once he regresses to the darkness that previously surrounded him and starts “talking” to Ma in the living room, she starts to notice “the limping creature behind Pa’s eyes” and abandons her attempts.
The inescapable burden of grief that is reinforced on the family by relatives is eloquently explored. “While Ma was alive, whenever we did something we weren’t supposed to, our relatives would bring Ma’s feelings into it, as if she was easy to hurt. But she wasn’t.
It didn’t matter now. Now she was gone, our capacity to hurt her seemed infinite.”
In some ways, the book reminded me of Max Porter’s exquisite novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, an emotionally resonant story of a suddenly widowed father and his young sons. While in that book “the crow” provides solace to the bereaved, here it is conquering personal demons on the squash court.
Western Lane is a nuanced coming-of-age story of an athlete, growing up and around grief.
The reviewer is a clinical psychologist and freelance journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 24th, 2023