Natasha Soobramanien’s first published novel is presented as an updating of the classic French Enlightenment era tale “Paul et Virginie” by Bernadin de Saint-Pierre, a story of two friends who fall in love on the island of Mauritius. Both plot and characters bear only the loosest resemblance however, a deliberate decision in a novel which has at its heart the tortuous and twisting nature which changing circumstance plays on our memories, and on our identities. The eponymous pair may scarcely resemble their near namesakes of the past, but how similar are they to their younger selves on a different continent? How similar are the contortedly remembered roads of our childhood to the transformed streets of today? The impossibility of our knowing forms a vital thematic element in the text that unfolds.
The story tracks the travels and trails of a Mauritian born brother and sister back and forth in their birth in the 80s to the present day, from their immigration to the UK as young children, and to their forays back to their land of origin caused by Paul’s existential dissatisfaction, his rootless restlessness. Born to different fathers, Genie is shy and academic, Paul reckless and obdurate, yet both are dislocated and disconnected, and devoted to each other by a fierce bond. As the pair begin to drop Es and explore the rave scene of early 90s London, they skirt around the parasitic petty underworld which shoots up to fill drug demand. Genie’s love for her older brother turns from worshipful reliance to a perturbed protectiveness as his own troubled life goes increasingly off the rails. As Genie is abandoned at a party following an E-fuelled collapse and Paul goes missing, Genie vows to find him, as the story turns into a quest across London, Mauritius and its sister island Rodrigues, past and present falling in and out of focus.
The book’s plot and themes may sound very de regueur literary fare, familial drama spiced with the multicultural sauce of tension between two cultures. What saves it from the weariness of worthy-dom is the vitality of its language, spotlighting the inner life of Genie and Paul with lucidity and fluidity. The book has a subtle sensuality in its sense of description, and Soobramanien is as redolent in her descriptions of East End side streets and drug dealers as she is in the parallel millieux of Mauritius, hazier and lazier in its equally sleazy lawlessness.
The complex and contradictory relationship the characters have to their heritage and past is symbolised in their disposition to the creole language of their first homeland “a masonic handshake, a bastard language formed from the cacophony of a hundred enslaved languages to confuse the oppressors”. It embarrasses Genie, yet she finds herself drawn to it, Paul romanticises it, yet ultimately finds it alienating, as, back in his homeland, so different to how he remembered it, he looks and feels like a tourist.
This novel has a still, calm voice, and a certain formlessness and open-endedness too, hazy as the Mauritian sun, and at times it feels as though it washes over almost imperceptibly. It is only afterward its warm psychic residue remains, and rewards. A cast of supporting characters, friends, family members, dealers, boyfriends, girlfriends and dealers give their own perspective on the story, but the tale is strongest when told through the eyes of the main pair, with an emotional honesty which renders them immensely sympathetic and believable. The given picture of sad-quiet Genie is a delight, but the greater achievement is the portrait of Paul. A man, a boy, a black immigrant involved in low level criminality who is surly at best in his dealings with the wider world, is the kind of character who generally gets short shrift in both the real and the literary world. The way Soobramanien’s writing brings him to life in such a rich and profuse way is a remarkable success.
Any Cop?: Dreamy and still, yet passionately evocative, an insight into the outer world of the immigrant and more importantly the inner life of the mind, Genie and Paul is a beautiful read, and augers well for Soobraminen’s future.