One of the things I don’t do enough is read outside my own cultural comfort zone. The books that draw me in tend to feature characters whose circumstances are similar in some respects to mine. Reading Priya Basil’s novel The Obscure Logic of the Heart, I realized that this is a serious omission on my part, because it made me think that some of the most exciting new literature coming out at the moment emerges not from the exhausted values of the white, Western world, but from the ideologically-fierce trouble spots in the East. That being said, Basil’s novel begins conventionally enough in London, with the start of a passionate love affair between Lina, a young Muslim woman studying law at university, and Anil, a wealthy Kenyan boy. It’s a real coup de foudre for the young lovers but they are destined to be star-crossed in ways that are exquisitely reminiscent of Shakespeare’s doomed protagonists. Lina is the eldest daughter in a devoutly religious family who live quietly and conventionally in Birmingham; romance with a boy not of her own religious conviction is unthinkable, almost a crime against the forcefully loving wishes of her parents. Anil, by contrast, has no particular religion to speak of although his family is nominally Sikh. If there is a God that matters, its Mammon for his rich and influential parents, who are used to getting what they want by fair means or foul. It’s not that they are particularly lawless, only that Kenya turns out to be one of the most corrupt nations in the world, and to live well is inevitably a matter of nepotism and bribery. In this way, Montagues and Capulets are redrawn for the 21st century, and it’s this utterly convincing conflict of family values that makes for such a compelling narrative.
This isn’t just a domestic love story, however, as Lina starts to work for the UN, and her job takes her into some of the most desolate of situations and opens her mind to some of the terrible ongoing conflicts. Lina’s story is one of innocence cast out into a strife-ridden world. Her upbringing has installed a strong code of morality into her; she works very hard, longs to help and is determined to do good. But it has also left her emotionally immature, compliant, and unable to make her own decisions, fearing the cost of her independence. Anil is trying to make his way as an architect, with an equally honorable desire to create buildings that merge modern methods with traditional materials. To put up the buildings he wants, though, he needs access to his father’s funds, a fact that keeps him more dependent on his family than he cares to realise. His story is one of privilege thwarted – will he learn how to act with grace in situations where he might have to compromise his desires?
To be honest, the show is pretty much stolen by the rich cast of characters who surround the lovers. Both sets of parents are brilliantly drawn, Lina’s parents in particular. The September 11 bombings take place over the course of the story and lead Lina’s mother, Iman, to declare that ‘already Islam was becoming all sorts of things she didn’t recognize: a phenomenon, an accusation, a threat, a weapon, a misunderstanding.’ And yet this comes only half a page away from her trawling the library shelves in an attempt to find a book on parenting that conforms to her disciplinarian view. ‘Most of the books she’d flicked through had advocated letting your children be, allowing them to make their own mistakes. Complete nonsense.’ Iman wants nothing less than complete control over Lina, and Priya Basil shows with great subtlety how this desire may be drawn from religious precepts, but is in fact a pure distillation of Iman’s character. Lina’s aunt is altogether more relaxed about the situation, suggesting that Iman does not trust enough in God if she feels she has to intervene forcefully in Lina’s life. Vying with Lina’s mother for the title of the most disturbing character is Anil’s best friend, Merc, a dangerous, damaged boy whose disapproval of the relationship seems to spring from jealousy and possessiveness, even if he claims he has Anil’s good at heart. His meddling will create all kinds of difficulties and ultimately provoke tragedy.
What’s really on trial in this novel, however, is love, and its tendency to descend into a need to control. Lina and Anil ought by rights to represent its transcendent power, its ability to dissolve the barriers hoist by religion, race and class. And yet, of course, it isn’t long before Lina and Anil are doing their best to control each other in subtle and not so subtle ways, Lina doling out lists of prohibitions that she needs Anil to respect, Anil eventually attempting to force Lina’s hand to get what he wants. Their behaviour is nothing in comparison to that of their parents, who have no compunction whatsoever about using all kinds of emotional blackmail to get the outcome for their children that they desire. Parental love in this narrative is always only a breath away from manipulation and intrusion, and whether the method of control is religion or cash, the parents are convinced that ends justify means. Yet there is no sense that a lack of love is the problem here, no, it is as ever what happens in the name of love that causes the reader to wince, or hold her breath.
I took a bit of a punt on this book as it was outside my usual run of reading, but I absolutely loved it, one of the best reads so far this year. What I admired most was Priya Basil’s ability to weave her themes together seamlessly, making the brutality of the world reverberate in distressing ways in the crucible of passionate love between men and women, between parents and children and between good friends. I felt I’d been given an illuminating glimpse into a part of the world about which I knew nothing, and had been caught up in a powerful story that made me think. This is definitely an author to watch.