Today I’m happy to be taking part in another Blog Tour for lovely Renard Press. This time it’s for a book I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up as I don’t, as a rule, read a lot of modern fiction. However, the book, “Still Lives” by Reshma Ruia, is a fascinating and very moving read which perhaps took me a little outside of my usual comfort zone – always a good thing! 😀

“Still Lives” is mostly narrated by PK Malik, a businessman born in Bombay who headed off to make a new life in America when he was young. However, bumping into an old friend en route, in Manchester, he was persuaded to stop off; and the journey never continued, with PK settling in Manchester and starting up a successful company. Now 55, with a wife Geeta and teenage son Aman, his luck is on the turn with business rivals out-doing him, a stale marriage and a son with little prospects. The book follows his mid-life crisis, his struggle to know what to do to make the best of his life, and the effects on his fragile family life.

Inevitably, PK meets another woman; in his case, Esther, the wife of one of his business rivals; and a fairly sordid affair takes place. This obviously can’t last, and as the truth comes out, affecting both partners’ families, events spiral into tragedy and a heartbreaking conclusion.

The plot might initially sound a little familiar, but “Still Lives” digs much deeper than just the bones of the plot I’ve laid out. Ruia is obviously intent on exploring her characters’ sense of identity and belonging, and the cultural issues they face are there from the very start. PK thinks he has assimilated, moving to a more affluent area and attending business events, but there’s always the feeling that under the surface he doesn’t really fit in and he’s often met with racism. For Geeta things are starker; she’s obviously desperately homesick and the move to the new house tore her away from the community and friends she’d made in Manchester. All of her attention is focused on her much-loved son, the only child she’s managed to bear to term, and her affection for him is smothering and cloying. As I read on through the story, it became clear that from the hints of Aman being ‘special’ there was more to his needs than at first met the eye.

It has to be said that PK is often a character with whom it’s very hard to sympathise; his narrative is so self-centred, his attitude towards his wife judgemental and ofter cruel, and his betrayal unforgiveable, especially when you see the effect it has on his family. Yet there are times when you understand his frustration about the way his life has turned out and the loss of his early dreams, although none of that justifies his behaviour. Esther, with whom he has his fling, has her own issues but is as needy and self-obsessed as PK and tellingly can’t even get Geeta’s name right. There is a clash of cultures between the two and, it has to be said, of class in the moneyed sense; her husband is on the ascendant whereas PK is on his way down, and so their affair really seems to have no future at all.

As for Geeta, she’s no fool, and the narrative is punctuated by her letters home to her sister where she often reveals her awareness of the situation. These work as a welcome counterpoint to PK’s self-obsession, her voice calling into question his actions and his beliefs. His insensitivity is infuriating; his harsh judgement of his wife whilst failing to understand her loneliness, her longing for her homeland and the reason why she clings to certain cultural areas of the city is blinkered. Both husband and wife, however, are equally blind when it comes to the reality of their beloved son, Aman; by using that word ‘special’ and refusing to really engage, they block the kind of support which would help him. His story, for me, was the biggest tragedy of all, and the climax of the book absolutely destroyed me.

So “Still Lives” turned out to be an absorbing, moving and unexpectedly powerful read; Ruia explores all manner of issues surrounding culture, belonging, alienation and the lies we tell ourselves to be able to carry on with our daily lives. The Malik family and their story really came alive for me in this book, and Aman in particular will haunt my thoughts for quite some time. Another winner from Renard Press, then, and a book I’m very glad I was pushed out of my comfort zone to read! 😀