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Reviews

Something To Tell You

Hanif Kureishi
Faber & Faber, 352pp

Kureishi's latest is one of 2008's tipped novels, and 'speaks directly to our nation's concerns and anxieties, and to our need for love', according to the blurb. It features 'a memorable cast of recognisable individuals, all of whom wrestle with their own limits as human beings, haunted by the past until they find it possible to forgive - themselves, most of all'. As is often the case, the blurb bears little resemblance to the book. The characters here are less likely to 'wrestle with their own limits' than assert their rights to do just what they want, and the degree of narrative detachment makes it impossible for the book to speak directly to 'our need for love'. Forgiveness isn't a central theme for these self-obsessed characters; it's not even marginal.

Still, Something to Tell You has considerable strengths. The family centres on Jamal, a middle-aged psychoanalyst estranged from his wife Josephine and 12-year-old son Rafi. For solace he spends time with his older sister Miriam, a tattooed council-house mother-of-five who develops a penchant for fetish clubs with her new boyfriend Henry, a narcissistic theatre director. But that's a sub-plot. Jamal, the narrator, leads us through the main plot, revisiting an act of extreme violence he committed in his youth and dealing with its ongoing reverberations. In the process, he's reunited with his first love, spends time at her pop star brother's country retreat, discusses 'West London schools' with Mick Jagger and has group sex at a Vauxhall club.

The dialogue is fresh, alive, and often blackly droll. When Henry criticises Miriam for achieving so little, she protests: 'I haven't had time! I've had five children and more abortions than you've had orgies! While you people were nancying around in theatres I was in a psychiatric hospital!' To which Henry replies, blithely: 'That's no excuse. So was Sylvia Plath.' Knighthood, comments Jamal, as he joins a party of successful peers, is 'that prosthetic for the middle-aged'.

Images dance on the page ('something quick ran across the road, like a collection of brown elbows') and aphorisms hit their mark ('being in your own family is hard enough; joining someone else's is scary work'). There are moments of lift-off when it seems the book is keen to wrestle with serious questions, as when Jamal comments: 'We are all responsible for our selves. But what are our selves? Where do they begin and how far do they extend?' The trouble is that these questions fail to ignite - Jamal seems keener to impress us with his knowledge of Freudian tradition, and the mechanics of psychoanalysis. Elsewhere, the text relies on generalisations and broad-brush or cliched description.

The main problem, though, lies in Jamal's detachment, and the distance this creates from other characters. Except through dialogue, they don't get to speak for themselves, and as a result they become grotesques or stereotypes; memorable but not believable. Moreover, it's hard to warm to a narrator who remains such a closed book emotionally. As perhaps befits an analyst, Jamal rarely invites the reader into his confidence, but when he commits a horrific act, there is little sense that it affects him (it would be 'pointless to torment myself', he says). Even when it seems the act will come to light, he seems to feel no guilt or even interest in what might happen. Dismissing those in mental distress as 'nutters', he admires the self-absorption of the film director Derek Jarman, who reportedly made himself oblivious to visitors by reading aloud from his journals.

Jamal does have moments of insight, acknowledging that 'listening is not only a kind of love, it is love', and there are occasional pleas for this level of engagement: an ex-girlfriend wails 'Who's going to care for me, listen to me?' and later challenges Jamal: 'Didn't you ever see that analysis doesn't make people kinder or funnier or more intelligent? It makes them more self-absorbed.' Towards the end of the novel, Jamal becomes 'aware of how bored and dissatisfied' he feels and 'how lonely I was, how far away… from other people', but his response to this isolation (desiring the experience of being 'in love again') suggests he hasn't learned the lesson that placing someone else's good above his own pleasure - giving rather than consuming - might yield the connection he's after.

The one time Jamal recovers something of his lost humanity is in a short collection of scenes with his son, featuring rare moments of tenderness: 'When he was little, I kissed Rafi continuously, licked his stomach, stuck my tongue in his ear, tickled him, squeezed him until he gasped, laughing at his beard of saliva, his bib looking like an Elizabethan ruff… He brought me his best pens to borrow, to help make my writing 'neater', as he put it… He liked Handel, and when he got excited he said, "Daddy, I feel as if I've got people dancing in my tummy".' Only when thinking of his family does Jamal reveal his emotions: he admits to feeling 'moved and desperate' on leaving them.

Elsewhere, Kureishi's characters reveal a deep-seated distrust of intimacy. 'Sexual relationships between near-marrieds like us can become dangerously satisfying and deep,' remarks Henry to Miriam. 'I guess they can feel incestuous, which is why people prefer strangers.' Despite these insights, it's a shame that this well written, shrewd and often thoughtful book so often misses the opportunity, through voice and characterisation, to engage.

Rachel Jones