The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

I’m still making up my mind about this book. On the one hand I really enjoyed its darkly comic style and the satirically pessimistic view of the world, which definitely struck a chord with my more morose moods (job hunting is not good for the soul). At the same time I disliked the main character – in fact several of the main characters – and it was one of those books that you sit down to read but instead you find yourself doing other things. I think if you’re procrastinating over reading a book then you know that you aren’t really enjoying it.

The Buddha of Suburbia is about Karim, the son of an Indian father and English mother, who lives in the suburbs of London during the 1970s. He is desperate to move into London and escape the dull existence in the suburbs. He seems like he will do anything to get there (his moral code is non-existent – by this I mean that he feels no qualms about stepping on his friend’s toes) yet he’s not prepared to actually put in any effort. I think I found his character irritating because, while he does suffer from racial prejudice, he seems completely unaware of the enviable opportunities that are available to him because of the people he knows. I’m probably missing some huge statement about race here, but I couldn’t help feeling that the very things he feels bitter about, are things that he does actually have access to. He does absolutely nothing to help himself and just hopes that something good will turn up…which it does, thanks to his father’s new partner, Eva. Eva’s character is also pretty irritating. She is a social climber and seems quite happy to use, and then drop, people when they cease to be useful to her. Her son, Charlie, is probably the worst offender and he is thoroughly dislikeable.

I realise that Karim’s character isn’t supposed to be perfect (the best characters never are) yet he doesn’t appear to have any redeeming characteristics: he is completely self-centred and this doesn’t change throughout the book. Maybe the ‘redeeming’ thing is that he is completely unapologetic in his selfishness?

Aside from my dislike of Karim’s character, the novel does make some very truthful observations about British society and specifically about London. Kureishi’s ruminations on class and privilege are very astute. Karim comes into contact with a variety of people from different backgrounds when he begins working as an actor. One of these is Eleanor, who is upper-middle class but likes to think of herself as working class. Karim describes Eleanor and her circle of friends:

…a world of total security that I’d thought only existed in books. They lacked all understanding of how much more than anyone else they had. I was frightened of their confidence, education, status, money, and I was beginning to see how important they were.

The novel is undoubtedly clever and very perceptive but I can’t say that I enjoyed actually reading it that much. It felt very much like some of the books I studied for my degree: I could appreciate the skilful writing and there is ample fodder for writing an essay on this book and but it didn’t enthral me.

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