Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)

Contributed by Litpop bookclub member, Clare McMahon – many thanks Clare!

This month’s book was the Hanif Kureishi’s highly acclaimed The Buddha of Suburbia.

It spans a time from the early seventies to early eighties, from south London suburbia, the city of London and New York. The main character is Karim Amir; the book revolves around his relationships with his guru wannabe Indian father, English mother, friendships and love interests.

Even though the book covers ten or so years of Karim’s life the group did feel the story flowed without you realising this amount of time has passed.  It could be thought that you would then call this book a story but there were mixed thoughts on this as the years didn’t really have much of a plot.  Possibly the tale of Karim’s rise and fall as an actor seems to be a focus but not as a storyline and not as one we really cared about. So could the portrayal of the relationships he felt he had with the other characters possibly be the focus?  The problem with this though is Karim’s character had no voice, no character input.  We heard what he felt about others but you never really felt you knew him and that he was quite one dimensional.  That said you could feel you liked him at times.  His humour came through with the taunting of others at times though this would come across as uncomfortable as it would be at the expense of the people around him who he cared for.  We concluded that he could have been suffering from depression but this was never referred to so perhaps he himself did not realise this.

As said the tale begins in the early seventies following Karim’s last years of school.  He lives with his parents in suburbia where a night’s entertainment for him his going with his father to people’s houses to talk eastern philosophy and meditating with the suburban middle class. We see Karim then move with his father and his best friend’s mother to central London after he leaves Karim’s mother for her. The happenings during this time reflect London life with the art and music scene where we move to the mid-seventies and the emergence of the punk scene.  This is where we see the complicated relationship with his best friend Charlie who emerges to be type of celebrity of the times.  Charlie is the main figure of the music involvement  of the book.  He emerges as a punk hero through to his change to a wannabe David Bowie, the portrayal of the gigs of the time are very well written.

Through these years we see the advancement in the other characters’ lives but not really Karim’s.  He never seems to want to succeed, and the group agreed that the book was about improvement. In addition to Charlie’s life his mother becomes her own person after her divorce, his brother has a successful career, and his other best friend Jamila also becomes her own woman after an arranged marriage that she breaks away from.  The era shows life in a realistic way with the prejudices that still governed the seventies.   Racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism are all covered but as much as we agreed upon their inclusion there were too many issues involved.  Most characters seem to suffer a lot of them at some point which made you sympathise with them but just too many to focus upon. For instance Jamilla suffers inequality at every turn, she is of Asian descent, her parents own a corner shop, she has an arranged marriage, she has an unhappy marriage, she has affairs, male and female, she joins a commune and the fact she is female  – a whole book could just be for her.  It was commented that the book could have been lots of small stories.

Further to the point of humour in the book it was thought it was not as such comical but entertaining with the portrayal of suburbia and the character Changez, Jamilla’s husband, he is portrayed as the village idiot, always to be made fun of.  To conclude the book was well liked by the group, I was felt that it had a good turn of phrase and a realistic portrayal of the times.

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