Review: ‘You People’ by Nikita Lalwani

The limits of compassion

by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, The Guardian, Manchester UK, April 1, 2020

A London pizzeria staffed by undocumented migrants is the setting for a moving exploration of how to be kind in an unkind world

Nikita Lalwani.

Humane vision … Nikita Lalwani. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Nikita Lalwani’s 2007 debut Gifted, the story of a maths prodigy raised by her Hindu parents in Cardiff and groomed for Oxford, won the Desmond Elliott prize. Lalwani donated her prize money to the human rights charity Liberty and her third novel cements the impression that this is a writer who is very interested in compassion, how it manifests, and the nature of its limits.

You People is the story of a London pizzeria that is largely staffed by undocumented migrants and presided over by the charming and enigmatic proprietor Tuli, who has sidelines in many shady endeavours. The story alternates between Nia, a 19-year-old Welsh waitress who has fled her alcoholic mother, and Shan, a Tamil refugee who has paid traffickers to get him out of Sri Lanka, leaving his young family behind. He has faced “weeks of waiting in small abandoned rooms in different cities, speech clotted thick with suspicion and fear, hard shell closing in on you like a crab if anyone looks you in the eye” – Lalwani is fond of animal similes, which often add to the vividness of the prose. Nia, in her turn, “disappeared like a slug through the side exit of the supermarket and left her bewildered mum to her fate with the police”.

There are interesting dynamics at play in this unnamed hodgepodge neighborhood in southwest London, with its Chinese store and “Polish greasy spoon.”Of the two, it is Shan who comes the most alive. Both protagonists have chosen to save themselves, and are experiencing guilt as a result of that decision. Both, too, are wondering to what extent their involvement in the refugee crisis makes them complicit in more human suffering. These moral questions are woven in gracefully, without didacticism. There are no easy answers.

Lalwani is a writer who understands people, and it shines through in her descriptions; one man, involved in human trafficking, has “a faux deference, and a light familiarity, like a family accountant”. Not all of the writing is this good; Lalwani can overcook her prose, as with Nia’s “firm, swollen, erotic curves” or “the gloaming void” of a room. Nevertheless, this is a moving, authentic, humane novel which raises fundamental questions about what it means to be kind in an unkind world, and it will stay with me for a long time.

 You People by Nikita Lalwani is published by Viking.

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