Sometime during 2011 I read a book called The Echo Chamber by Luke Williams. It wasn’t bad. Very literary, not always enjoyable, but an ambitious debut from a talented writer. What intrigued me most was that my two favourite chapters turned out not to be by Luke Williams, but instead were written by the wonderfully named Natasha Soobramanien. I enjoyed her chapters so much I titled the review ‘Who is Natasha Soobramanien?’ and stated that if she ever wrote her own novel ‘I’d be first in the queue to buy it’.
Well, I didn’t manage that, failing to notice that Natasha had published her own debut, until it appeared on my Vine Monthly Newsletter, but I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to review it. Perhaps there was no way Genie and Paul was going to meet my expectations, but I must confess to being slightly disappointed.
From the outset the subject matter made me uneasy. It’s ‘an imaginative reworking of an 18th Century French Classic’, a statement, which had I not already read some of Soobramanien’s work, would have had me dismissing the novel as pretentious twaddle. I have a rather scathing attitude towards this kind of device, derived I suspect, from an inferiority complex about my lack of knowledge of the literary canon. From the outset I worried I would miss any allusions and nuances based upon the original text. It’s uncomfortable going into a novel feeling disadvantaged.
The quality of Soobranamien’s writing is evident from the start. With deft descriptions of the Mauritius and an immigrant’s life in 70s London. Genie’s innocent perspective put me in mind of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, though Soobranamien’s treatment is ultimately more satisfying. When Genie’s innocence then rubs up against her brother’s seedy drug addled existence, in various London squats, the book reminded me of Doris Lessing’s ‘The Good Terrorist’. Though in ths case, Lessing’s novel is far superior.
Genie and Paul contains some beautiful and evocative images, but whilst each page has much to admire, the novel overall left me little cold. Soobranamien is an alumnus from the now-famous UEA creative writing course, and to be honest it shows. The multiple narrative voice and fluctuating time-frame structure is impressive, but too artificial. Inventive, perhaps, but I found it too clinical and calculated to fully succumb to the book on an emotional level.
Peculiarly, I find myself thinking about Paul and Genie in exactly the same way as the Echo Chamber. I can see why people like it, but it didn’t work for me. Having said that, Soobramanien is clearly a writer of considerable talent. I think she has a long career ahead of her and I look forward to seeing where she takes it next.