Hanif Kureishi, the English novelist and playwright of Pakistani extraction, is best known for acclaimed work like My Beautiful Laundrette, Intimacy and ‘The Buddha of Suburbia, which won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1990. Frequently ambitious in terms of subject matter and exploring the boundaries of genre, new work by him is always eagerly anticipated.
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This collection gathers stories and essays that have been published widely over the past few years, pieces which attempt to explore the big themes of love and hatred, and the often only barely decipherable line that separates one from the other.
Kureishi is a fine writer, with a clear, honed style and a constantly questioning mind, but the essays, which work well on an individual basis, seem to lose some of their punch in this grab-bag format.
The essays that feel drawn from the author’s own life and experience work best. Whether sharing recollections of Enoch Powell, the late-60s bogeyman; presenting the interactions with his sons, which makes fascinating observations on the notion of growing up and growing old, the cyclical nature of generations; or offering some very considered reflections on his own father, he not only evokes an era but succeeds in challenging and engaging the reader.
However, other offerings, on Kafka, Freud, Nietzsche, the joys of a Mont Blanc fountain pen, and the need for art and imagination in creative writing (“the imagination is as dangerous as dynamite” and “... following rules doesn’t make anyone an artist”), while interesting enough as subject matter, seem to suffer by accumulation.
Set among a shuffle of short stories and the autobiographical pieces that boast the personality of stories, their intellectualism soon feels dry.
Scattered throughout this mix are five fictions.
The best of these really shine. In ‘The Door Is Shut’, a middle-aged Pakistani widow, whose husband has been beheaded by the Taliban, is driven from her homeland by her monstrous son.
She settles in Paris and accepts an arranged marriage, to a disconnected and self-absorbed theatre critic.
‘The Land of the Old’ is a first-person account of the life of a sex slave whose institutionalised existence has caused him to become reliant on his elderly, vampire-like master and mistress.
Now starting to show the signs of ageing, he faces being cut loose and having to face the daunting prospect of a life alone in a big, uncaring world.
And in the collection’s terrific, tension-packed opener, ‘Flight 423’, a Cortazar -type story except without the sense of astonishment, Kureishi puts the reader on a packed flight with Daniel, a first-class traveller.
However, when the plane develops technical problems and is unable to land, the tenuous rules of society come quickly apart and a new law takes precedence among the increasingly feral passengers: survival of the fittest.
‘Love + Hate’ closes on an even more impressive note, with the long memoir piece, ‘A Theft: My Con Man’.
Penned following a life-changing moment in 2012, when he fell victim to a swindle that put him out of pocket to the tune of more than €140,000, and which for a while even cost him his identity, the author not only presents a chronological unfurling of the devastation but lays bare his emotional core, his thoughts and self-analyses during the turbulent aftermath.
It’s a remarkable finale: utter exposure that reveals a victim primed for lies, the inseparable nature of love and its opposite, the discovery of a greater sense of self and the healing powers of forgiveness, or at least acceptance.
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