Deepti Kapoor's debut novel A Bad Character(Knopf) is the sort of book that few authors are able to write as their first novel. The story explores identity, sexuality, rebellion, and life lived outside the lines in 21st century Delhi, and is sure to captivate readers everywhere. It's a masterful debut that should not be missed.
From the first line, "My boyfriend died when I was twenty-one," the book's intimate tone and star confidence is sure to draw audiences in. The story traces, in fragmented fashion, the intoxicating and fraught love affair between the narrator and a man she meets in a cafe in Delhi. For the narrator, the tempestuous, passionate relationship is a means of escape from her stifling life of university classes and her relatives efforts to arrange her a marriage with invariably dull suitors. And before she knows it, she is caught up in his world and a side of Delhi she never knew.
The story is divided into small sections, most only a paragraph long, each able to stand on its own. The structure breaks events and emotions down into individual units, each distinct and uniformly stressed. At the same time, the narrative's tendency to makes jumps in time without clear warning reinforces the tangled, headlong rush of the events of the novel, everything interconnected in the narrator's mind. The story could easily have become a confusing jumble, but instead is held together seemingly effortlessly by the prose, which manages to be both melancholy and uplifting, captivating and haunting.
Through the prose, the author is able to convey a sense of charged beauty throughout, whether describing a simple drive through Delhi ("He want to show me every inch of the city, wants to exhaust me, fill my body with it, he wants me to know") or a gritty back alley drug den ("I watch him hold the lighter to the spoon, his bare feet collecting dust. There is so much preparation, it's just like puja"). It's a meditative portrait not just of a turbulent relationship, but also the multi-facetted city of Delhi.
A Bad Character also touches on issues of class, race, and religious divides in modern-day India, though it never delves into them deeply, focusing instead on the intimate and personal story of a single young woman, attempting to navigate tradition and modernity, change and expectation. It's a memorable story and a stunning debut from a new talent.
Image: Matthew Parker