Review Blog

Jul 24 2008

Gifted by Nikita Lalwani

cover image

Penguin 2008.
(Age 16+)
Adults reading this book may recall the child prodigy Ruth Lawrence beginning her Oxford degree at the tender age of thirteen. In this novel Rumi is coached by her father to fulfil a similar ambition. It's hard to believe this is a first novel and I'm not surprised it was long-listed for the Man Booker Award. The complex, brooding story is both heart wrenching and incredibly funny, demonstrating Lalwani's deep understanding of the human psyche. Nearly every emotion in the book is concealed; love, anger, hate, need. The incident where Rumi asks her Mother for a bra is quite savage, full of Shreene's suppressed rage and Rumi's anguish.

We first meet Rumi aged five when numbers are like beads; to be threaded into countless different patterns. Numbers are clearly friends, providing succour and support, but by the time she starts university at the age of 15, Rumi is a product of her parents' strict and merciless control and some kind of break down is inevitable.

Isolation is a recurring theme. Rumi's mother, Shreene takes a thermos flask to work so she can avoid the other women in the staff kitchen. Rumi is not permitted to invite friends home, and spends a soul destroying two hours after school each day studying alone in the public library.

Rumi's young life is an endless drudgery of study. Chess is one of the few games approved of by her father. Even a simple trip into town is turned into an educational minefield when Mahesh questions his daughter on everything from the German exchange rate to the Indian economy. As Rumi says, why can't they just have fun?

Her parents are not monsters, Mahesh and Shreene love their daughter and want what's best for her, but in such a misguided and brutal way you long to shake some sense into them. Mahesh, serious minded and diligent, manages to imbue a solo visit to Disney Land with such sombre gravity that I wanted to laugh and weep in equal measures.

There is so much to think about and discuss that I'm sure Gifted will be a must for many book clubs and it should certainly be required reading for AS and A Level literature students. Lalwani's next novel is due for release in 2009. I can't wait.
Claire Larson

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