The incident that gives You People its title occurs on a bus in London. Shan, a line cook at an unassuming neighborhood restaurant called Pizzeria Vesuvio, sees a woman and her young son on the bus. Shan has seen them before, and with each sighting, the boy has looked sicker. Shan fled torture in Sri Lanka and entered England without documents, and the boy reminds him of the son he left behind. Shan looks at the pair with deep feeling, but the mother screeches at him, blaming him and “you people” for crowding out her son’s medical treatment.
By this point in the novel, we know quite a bit about the interior lives of Shan and his restaurant co-workers. Many of them are also without documents, and all are misfits. Nia is the daughter of a spirited Welsh woman and a Bengali father whom she’s never met, though Shan considers her a white Brit. Tuli, the restaurant owner, is a mysterious figure who lends his employees money, meets furtively with drug dealers and petty thieves, and travels the city at night on unknown errands. We wonder what price his employees will pay for his generosity.
Born in India and raised in Wales, author Nikita Lalwani moves us through the first parts of her third novel with ravishing, insightful prose. Of Shan’s regretful memories of arguments with the wife he decided to leave behind, Lalwani writes, “He would leave the soiled furnace of their words when it was too overwhelming—and walk around outside for hours.” Or about Nia’s need to rid herself of her lower-class Welsh accent, Lalwani writes, “That was one of the first things she did at Oxford, along with getting rid of her home-bleached locks. She remembered wearing those new vowels like furs, feeling that showy and ridiculous.” This is just a tiny sample of Lalwani’s great skill and empathic heart.
Lalwani’s novel takes the reader under the skin and inside the souls of these characters. Its early pages are a magical read, as we are invited to ponder generosity and human kindness. But when the story bends toward plot—danger, rescue, relief—a bit of the magic is lost. It remains a very good novel, just not the very great novel we’d hoped for.