The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi covers a wide range of weighty topics without seeming to lose focus and never sounds preachy. The story follows Karim Amir, a teenager in middle-class suburban London, born to an English mother and Indian father. Karim’s coming of age story explores themes of family, love, sexuality and racism.
At under 300 pages it’s a wonder Kureishi is able to cover so much ground with so few words. It’s not that his writing isn’t incisive (it is!), it’s simply economical and efficient. A simple page or two and you can feel the suffocating boredom of Karim’s family life like dust trapped in stale sunlight. But before you have a chance to fully digest and process the scene you’re on to the next vignette.
Purposeful or not, the speed in which events occur mirror the accelerated development that takes place during those teenage years. The time when everything seems to happen at once. It dawns on you that your parents are people with their own foibles; you’re experimenting with sex; you gorge yourself on music as a proxy for self-identity; you fall in love or lust; and you begin to comprehend subtext, drafted into a new and messy adult reality.
The Buddha of Suburbia would be an above average novel if limited to just these ‘standard’ story lines. Overlay the cultural and racial tension and The Buddha of Suburbia becomes unique. It is no longer a Catcher in the Rye variant (not a phony), but a layered period piece and social indictment with self-identity as the centering plot device; whether it is Karim’s struggle to find his place in the world; or generations of Indian immigrants grappling with native versus adoptive customs; or the definition of family relationships in modern society.
However, I never really ‘felt’ for Karim, though I understood and appreciated his motivations and actions. Karim seems somewhat disconnected and aloof, which may be how Kureishi is able to quickly navigate from one thematic element to the other. I wanted to feel more for Karim, but instead I felt for his situation. Objective empathy instead of visceral reaction.
This made The Buddha of Suburbia more entertaining and light, yet less penetrating. Despite this lack of emotional depth, I recommend reading Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia.