(Reviewed by Tony Ross NOV 18, 2007)
This debut novel by financial journalist Malkani is well worth reading and deserves much respect for its brilliant recreation of a particular form of urban patois. Set in Hounslow, in West London (adjacent to Heathrow Airport), it revolves around four South Asian teenagers who style themselves as hard rudeboys. Or rather, three rudeboys, and one new hanger-on who narrates the tale. The story more or less concern the antics of the foursome as they cruise around the hood, posing in their flash cars (actually belonging to their parents), acting tough while skiving off from studying for examination retakes. Eventually, a cell phone scam they run brings them into contact with a wealthy playboy from their hood, who brings them in on a much more profitable scam, and in touch with the high life.
All of this is fairly interesting, but mainly a backdrop for a larger (and often quite funny) exploration of immigrant assimilation, cultural authenticity, racism, class, and youth culture. A good portion of the book involves how these British born and bred teens negotiate their identities.
On the street they are self-styled hoods, while at home they are obedient, deferential children. In contrast to their immigrant parents who kept a low profile in order to assimilate, these boys demonstrate their unwillingness to assimilate by maintaining a high profile. Similarly, they blend a variety of South Asian cultural attitudes and styles with that of American and British black culture. This is all teased out in the interactions of the boys, as well as a subplot involving the arranged marriage of one of the boys' older brothers, and another subplot involving a sexy Muslim girl. The material could easily become didactic or dry in the wrong hands, but in Malkani's rendering, it comes alive through the freshest, fizziest dialogue since Trainspotting. And like that book, the combination of Punjabi, Black, British, and Text Message slang might intimidate some readers (especially older ones) at first, after about ten pages, most will be comfortable with it rhythms.
What keeps the book from being truly excellent is the problem of what the narrator is doing hanging out with the other three. He's clearly been a bit of a nerd or non-entity his whole life, and just why these status-obsessed rudeboys would more or less adopt him is never satisfactorily explained. While it does make sense that you would have an outsider or newcomer narrate this story so that they can explain everything that's self-evident to the other main characters and present an opposing viewpoint, the dissonance between him and the others never goes away. There's also a "gotcha" twist at the end that adds nothing and only raises further questions of plausibility.
Nonetheless, the book is an entertaining and thought-provoking fictional look at a particular subculture that anyone with an interest in modern Britain should check out.
- Amazon readers rating: from 21 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Londonstani (June 2006)
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- Official website for Gautam Malkani
- TimeOut London interview with Gautam Malkani
- Reading Guide for Londonstani
- The Believer review of Londonstani
- BlogCritics review of Londonstani
- NPR page on Londonstani
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About the Author:
Gautam Malkani was born in 1976 and grew up in Hounslow (West London). His mother came to London from Uganda and worked as a radiographer while bringing up Gautam and his his brother. Gautam went to Isleworth & Syon comprehensive and got into Cambridge Universtity by being clever and working hard. As part of his SPS (social and political sciences) degree, he wrote a dissertation on rude-boy culture which enabled him to rationalise his frequent visits home to see his mates as "field trips." Londonstani grew out of his abortive attempts to convert his dissertation into a non-fiction book.
Malkani is currently a journalist for The Financial Times and head of the Creative Business section. He has worked on the UK news desk in London as well as in the Washington bureau. He studied
He and his wife live in London, England.