For a book whose subject is the raw grief of an 11-year-old mourning the death of her mother, Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane is surprisingly unemotional. Its sentences are softly-spoken, its affect mostly flat, its novella length – 161 pages – brisk and contained.
Plot-wise, too, this Booker Prize-longlisted debut is uncomplicated. A Gujarati immigrant family living in 1980s Britain silently struggles to cope with the death of their Ma, with squash filling those holes. The sport, which takes over the world of Gopi and her emotionally suffocated Pa, provides respite and distraction: each day Gopi practises at Western Lane, a sporting centre outside London, losing herself in her serves and becoming drawn to fellow player, 13-year-old Ged. The narrative alternates between past and present, court and home; while the court provides structure, it’s at home that Gopi, our narrator, observes the crumbling of her family, through subtle details from headaches to whispered conversations.
Squash and grief are the central tenets of Maroo’s book, with the former often acting as a metaphor for the paradoxically coexistent loneliness and universality of the latter. As Gopi puts it in one of many sport-focused interludes: “When you are on the court, in the middle of a game, in a way you are alone. That is how it’s supposed to be. You are supposed to find your own way out. You have to find the shots and make the space you need. You have to hold the T. No one can help you. No one can concentrate for you or fear losing on your behalf. But sometimes it seems the opposite is true. It seems that, on the court, you are not alone at all.”
The cleanliness of Maroo’s prose here, consistent with much of the novel, demonstrates her discipline as a writer. But for the reader inhabiting the brain of a traumatised 11-year-old, it feels fundamentally lacking in any real depth. Gopi’s consistently single-note tone could be a manifestation of her grief; still, either way, for the reader the result is a frustratingly unmemorable voice. Even her narrative arc, the culmination of which is abrupt and inconclusive, rather than “coming-of-age”, feels underdeveloped.
On the other hand, there are times at which Maroo’s perceptiveness comes to the fore, as with the passages that address the unspoken. Close attention is paid to the silence that fills the gaps between serves and stutters, while “ghosting” – when a player simulates the motions of squash without playing the ball – comes to symbolise how the family functions without the words they need to express their grief, as well as the absence of Ma.
There’s no doubt that Maroo is a talented writer, as demonstrated by sensitive short stories such as Happiness (2022, The Stinging Fly), but the muted feel of Western Lane often conceals that ability. I emerged from this short volume feeling mildly intrigued by the grief coping mechanism explored by the author, but ultimately wanting more emotionally.
Western Lane by Chetna Maroo is published by Picador at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books