Guest review by Gabriel Fox
1. What is the book?
2. Who wrote it?
3. What is it about?
Western Lane is the coming-of-age tale of eleven-year-old Gopi and her two older sisters Mona (15) and Khush (13). When Gopi’s mother passes away, her father decides that his three daughters should acquire more discipline. Being an enthusiast for racket sports, he decides that the girls will begin a very intensive regimen of physical training and exercise to become great squash players. It is on the squash courts of the decaying country club Western Lane that the sisters are driven nearly every waking hour outside of school to hone their racket skills by an imperious task master. The subtle brutality with which the father drives his daughters to competition with each other leads an already grieving family to the brink. Yet as Mona and Khush fall away from squash out of physical and mental exhaustion, Gopi identifies herself ever more fiercely with the sport. What was once an unhealthy perfectionism imposed on her by a domineering parent turns into a means for Gopi to discover her own talents and process the death of her mother with both grace and cathartic ferocity.
4. Why did I read it?
I read Western Lane because I was curious as to how Maroo would use the sport of squash as a symbolic matrix with which to deal with more serious thematic material about childhood, memory, unhealthy family dynamics, and the acquisition of a positive self-image. I knew nothing about squash or racket sports more generally before I read the novel, but that did not turn out to be an obstacle to understanding and enjoyment! Maroo explains the workings of the squash court in a way that helps the reader to understand the sport's dynamics without distracting from the main thread of the story. I haven’t read many novels that use athleticism and sport as a primary theme, so this was a new and enjoyable experience.
5. What do I think?
I would recommend Western Lane to readers who are looking for novels pertaining to squash, adolescent identity formation, British-Indian cultural identity, family dysfunction, childhood, the processing of loss, or who are just looking for a brief but engrossing afternoon’s reading. Despite the challenges and hardships faced by Gopi and her sisters, this is a novel that ultimately focuses on the hard-fought battle to regain agency for oneself and turn the hardships that are forced upon us to our own advantage. Maroo’s prose is spare, but forceful. The staccato-like precision of each sentence is an extension of the “clean hit” or “pistol-like shot” of the squash courts. Despite this, there is a tremendous amount of nuanced observation and emotional insight that the reader is allowed to perceive at the margins of the text. Volleys and serves, the T, the service line, pivoting, ghosting, backhanding – every aspect of squash is utilized as a metaphorical reflection of the sisters’ inner emotional experience and their relation to an imperious father figure.
One aspect of Western Lane that I found particularly intriguing was a slightly unsettling menace of paranormality that encroaches at the periphery of our attention without ever really fully explaining itself. Slightly bizarre occurrences make themselves known throughout: implied mother-daughter telepathy, a maimed and feral dog named Fourth Avenue who appears to communicate silently with the sisters, and the decomposing squalor of the club itself. These saturate the novel with an unusual psychic intensity that is indicative of both the external and internal states of the characters. It is the careful way in which Maroo slowly threads Gopi’s ultimately positive story out of these sinister elements that gives the novel a sense of ultimately satisfying resolution and uplift. By turns tender, eerie, visceral, and life-affirming - Western Lane is an unorthodox bildungsroman that will attract readers looking for something touching and sui generis.
You can place a hold on your copy of the book by clicking on the cover below:
Hello! My name is Tom, and I am a librarian here at the Niagara Falls Public Library. Welcome to a recurring blog post that comes out the 5th of every month, where I answer five questions about a book in our collection.