In his first novel since editing The Good Immigrant, Nikesh Shukla brings us a gem of a novel that was twenty years in the making…
When I signed up to NetGalley, The One Who Wrote Destinyby Nikesh Shukla was the first book that I requested. I’d finally read The Good Immigranta couple of months previously and loved it, so anything with Shukla’s name attached to it was a definite yes from me.
Like any bookworm with an unhealthy addiction to acquiring books, I quickly got distracted by new and shiny books, with this one taking a back seat as I knew it wasn’t going to be published until early April.
Fast forward to early April and another classic bookworm emotion – panic. I’d been sitting on this book for about three/three and a half months, publication was imminent, QUICK READ THE BOOK.
Believe me, I’m SO glad that I did.
This is a novel in four parts. Mukesh has left his home in Kenya and found himself in Keighley, over 200 miles away from the London he thought he would be living in. He meets and instantly falls in love with Nisha, a young woman who knows she is dying. Fast forward to Neha and Rakesh, their twin children. Neha is dying from the disease inherited from a mother she has never met; while Rakesh is trying to fulfil his destiny as a comedian. The novel finishes with Ba, the twin’s grandmother; who, after surviving her husband and children, has returned to Kenya, alienated by a Britain that only offered her racism and violence.
Why I LOVED it
This is such a beautifully written novel. Shukla describes it as literary fiction; if that’s the case, it’s the kind of literary fiction I am completely on board with. I’ve had mixed experiences with the genre, with many examples leaving me incredibly bored and frustrated, unable to connect to any of the characters and constantly telling myself to just give up on it. This was the opposite, to the point that I had a little cry on the tube and nearly missed my stop. Twice.
There is this bittersweet sadness that runs through the novel that I found utterly absorbing. Mukesh is obsessed with his dead wife, who he was destined to meet but lost far too soon. Neha is fixated on understanding the pattern of the deaths in her family while processing the imminence of her own. Rakesh is driven by the hope of fulfilling his own destiny as a performer and comedian, while processing the loss of his twin. I fell hard for these characters, particularly Neha and Rakesh, and did not want the story to end.
I felt that Shukla struck a perfect balance between real life and mysticism by showing the reality of racism, while still giving the characters hope for a better destiny. Without the latter, the book could have become unbearably melancholy (when in fact there were a number of funny, heartwarming moments) and the combination also perfectly illustrated the point that ingrained racism in society means that British BAME people are unable to fully write their own destinies. Assimilation into the predetermined mould of “The Good Immigrant” is demanded and deviation is punished.
After speeding through this book, I discovered that Shukla was going to be speaking about it at a Waterstones event the day after publication. Buying the ticket was another easy decision, and it gave me a golden opportunity to hear the author talk about this amazing book in his own words.
Shukla was in conversation with his friend and comedian Josie Long, which resulted in an informal chat with plenty of laughs. I couldn’t help feeling that a more experienced interviewer might have given a more structured interview and been able to ask more questions about the book, but I enjoyed it all the same.
Luckily, I had no need to swallow my introversion and ask a question that had been on my mind since finishing the book as Long asked it for me. Of the four main characters, three are told from first-person perspectives. In contrast, Rakesh’s section is told through the perspective of a collection of secondary characters, which I found so interesting and tantalising. In many ways, it made me love Rakesh more because I could see how sad he was but could never fully know what was going on inside his head. It was a deliberate choice that felt 100% right, but I couldn’t articulate why or imagine what was behind that decision.
In answering, Shukla spoke about the nature of comedy and performing. At that point in the novel, Rakesh is grieving his sister as well as experiencing a painful incident of racism, yet his desire to achieve his destiny as a comedian means that he is also having to perform while dealing with that pain. Shukla chose [I hope I’m remembering this correctly…] to present Rakesh in this way as a reflection of that constant performance, we are only ever allowed to know the version of Rakesh that he wants to give to us.
Shukla showed himself to be a funny, kind and humble man. He patiently listened to and answered all of the audience’s questions, even approaching a man at the end whose question he hadn’t quite understood. It was fascinating to learn more about his background as a self-labelled “shit rapper” and more recently as a youth worker, which partly inspired his new YA novel, Run Riot, coming out later this year. Far from being a one-off, The Good Immigrant has led to: The Good Journal, a quarterly publication to champion British BAME writers; The Good Literary Agency, championing writers that are under-represented in mainstream publishing; and a US version of The Good Immigrant, set to hit our shelves in 2019.
Shukla was also part of a team that launched the Jhalak book prize, a new literary award for British writers of colour. The inaugural prize was awarded to Reni Eddo-Lodge for her hugely successful book (and my current read), Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. This is a man who backs up his words with solid action by shedding light on the writers that the industry is overlooking, and I can’t wait to read the work that he uncovers.
Overall, The One Who Wrote Destiny is a five-star novel that I would highly, highly recommend reading and one that I’m unlikely to forget anytime soon.
The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla is out now, published by Atlantic Books. Thank you to the publishers and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.