Review by

Western Lane

A debut novelist of brilliant promise

Longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2024, and appearing on last year’s Booker shortlist, Western Lane by Chetna Maroo is a spare, tender novel of grief and loss, told from the viewpoint of bereaved 11-year-old Gopi in her unique search for resilience through the game of squash. Following the untimely death of her mother, Gopi’s struggling father has launched his three daughters into an intense regime at Western Lane sports centre. Here, on the squash court, Gopi will find space to breathe and contemplate a world of adult silences and the challenges of adolescence in a cross-cultural family.

Gopi begins her story in the middle of the court, one evening session after school, listening to the sounds emanating from the next court, and in particular the echo of the ball rebounding after a shot, a pistol-crack, the split second for a player to navigate a response. She will forever associate this with the period after Ma’s death, where she is learning to formulate her own response to life as a motherless daughter.

As members of a British-Gujarati family based just outside London, Gopi and her older sisters, Khush and Mona, are already juggling a modern urban childhood with the more traditional elements of their family, in particular, Aunt Ranjan, who has concerns about Pa’s parenting. His girls have become too wild, she says, wearing shorts, running everywhere. What would she think if she knew that her niece’s regular squash partner was a white boy, and as Mona points out, one that is sweating and wiping his palms ‘along the same smudged patch of wall’ as Gopi?

While Pa makes plans to enter Gopi into her first tournament, childless Aunt Ranjan is carefully considering which of the sisters she should take into her home and love as her own. After all, her widowed brother-in-law can’t cope with three spirited girls.

Maroo’s exploration of grief is a masterclass in subtlety, as Pa is unable to articulate his emotions, leaving much that is intuited by his daughters from his silent, sombre looks. They imagine him gazing bleakly into a future ‘without Ma, with us,’ a future he didn’t want. Unacknowledged by him, Mona is attempting to adopt a maternal domestic role, Khush spends nights on the landing whispering in Gujarati to her dead mother, and Gopi channels her own grief into the physicality of the squash court.

In the evenings, watching TV together, they observe their father’s thinly veiled impatience to be left alone. Often he just sits and stares at his wife’s favourite chair, Gopi worries that they’ll forget her.

‘…I tried to remember but all I could see were insignificant things. The height of her. Her arms on the arms of her chair, bent at the elbows. The dust that blackened the soles of her feet.’

The after-effects of Ma’s death continue to ricochet through the extended family even as her presence threatens to fade.

A  quietly profound novel from a debut author of brilliant promise.

Western Lane by Chetna Maroo is published by Picador, 176 pages.

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