TagNikesh Shukla

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 50-41

In 2009, the writer Stuart Evers posted his “50 best novels of the 2000s” on his blog. I wished I could have done the same, but I hadn’t kept track of my reading in enough detail.

Ten years on, it’s a different story: thanks to this blog, I have a record of what I read, so I decided to put something together. I’m not calling it a ‘best of’, or even a list of favourites – it’s not meant to be that kind of exercise. Instead, I’ve chosen 50 books that have inspired strong memories.

My guidelines are: novels and short story collections allowed. First published in English or English translation during the 2010s, and read by me in that time (so nothing I’ve read this year). One book per author, except in one instance where I couldn’t choose between two.

The plan is to post my list in weekly instalments every Sunday. Here are the first ten entries. It’s a coincidence – but quite appropriate – that the writer who inspired my list is the first to appear on it…

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Firestation Book Swap on Tour @ London Review Bookshop, 3rd February 2011

There were five-and-a-half months between my first and second Firestation Book Swaps; but only two weeks between my second and third. Well, I reasoned, they don’t come to London very often, so I’ll go whenever I can. Back I went, then, to the London Review Bookshop (which, let me tell you, is a dangerous place to go browsing when you don’t really want to buy anything – so many interesting books!), where hosts Marie Phillips and Robbie Hudson (Scott Pack not being available for this one) welcomed William Fiennes (whom I remember from Picador Day at Foyles last year) and Nikesh Shukla (whose Coconut Unlimited was one of my favourite reads of 2010).

Marie began by distributing pens and paper to the audience for them to write their questions (mine was ‘Is February a better month than January?’ – alas, it wasn’t used), and explained how the swapping process worked – using One Day by David Nicholls as one of the hypothetical books, because, she said, someone always brings a copy of that to the Book Swap.

At this point, Marie paused and asked who had brought One Day with them this time.

But no one had.

And the logical impossibility of this caused the universe to spontaneously self-destruct.

Not really; I’m joking – but it is true that no one had brought a copy of One Day. I have to say, there were some epic swaps tonight: Will Fiennes had something like six offers of swaps for his copy of The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino (in the end, he chose a book of Frank O’Connor short stories); and I got three offers for my copy of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre AffairThe Great Gatsby (which I already have); Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (which I don’t); and the one I went for, The Cat in the Coffin by Mariko Koike. I’d never heard of the book, or its author; but, for me, part of the point of going to Book Swap is the chance to be introduced to unfamiliar books and writers.

The conversation was the usual eclectic mix, with questions ranging from ‘What would your hip-hop name be?’ to ‘Which is your favourite foot?’ And it was great to meet Nikesh in person, along with his felliow Quartet author Gavin James Bower, who introduced me to another writer, Niven Govinden, whose work I shall now also be investigating. A great evening, as always.

Nikesh Shukla, Coconut Unlimited (2010)

Nikesh Shukla’s first novel is the story of Amit; he and his friends Anand and Nishant are the only Asian boys at their private school in early 1990s Harrow. They find themselves struggling to be accepted anywhere: their ethnicity marks them out as different at school, and their schooling marks them out as different amongst the other Asian kids in town. The boys find refuge in a shared love of rap, and decide to start their own hip-hop band, which they name Coconut Unlimited (after Amit’s sister, Nish, calls him a coconut – ‘white on the inside, brown on the outside’ [p. 28]). They just need a bit of practice first. Okay, maybe a lot of practice…

This is such a great book, so sharply observed and amusing. At one level, Coconut Unlimited captures gloriously the awkward moments of adolescence. There’s a wonderful scene where, on a family trip to London, Amit is desperate to buy some baggy jeans, and his mum takes charge, dragging him into a streetwear shop and demanding to know where the jeans are… it makes one’s toes curl in empathy. Amit’s first kiss also runs far from smoothly: he doesn’t quite know what to do with his tongue, the experience feels quite strange… These and other moments are vivid demonstrations of the choppy waters through which the teenage Amit is voyaging.

On another level, Shukla’s novel is an acute portrait of putting on a mask in the aim of being perceived in a certain way, and finding that mask uncomfortable to wear. Unable to reconcile the two cultures he’s caught between, Amit tries to define himself by a third; he’s drawn to the glamour of hip-hop, but doesn’t embrace it wholeheartedly. Amit will put on an accent and use street slang, but wants nothing to do with real crime, and is distinctly out of his depth when dealing with local ‘badboy’ Ash (‘the closest thing to ghetto in my life’ [p. 83]). He’s keen to show off his knowledge (real or pretended) of hip-hop as a way of constructing a persona, but is wrong-footed when he meets a new Asian lad at school who seems to know more about the genre than he does. Amit will criticise his sister for the way she lives her life (‘So insular. All her friends were Gujarati. All her references were Indian’ [p. 70]), and he’ll observe that his mother’s sense of having struggled in life is crucial to her notion of self-worth (‘She thought it made her more humble, when in fact it gave her a feeling of martyrdom’ [p. 72]) – but he can’t see the parallels between those and how he’s using hip-hop culture in his life.

There’s a bittersweet note to the story, in that we know from the prologue that the band doesn’t land, and Amit ends up with a comfortable, middle-class English life. But having that knowledge in the back of one’s mind makes for an effective counterpoint to the main narrative, and the journey through the book is highly enjoyable.

Throughout Coconut Unlimited, Amit repeats that he wants his band to be pretty cool. Well, the band might be pretty cool, but the novel is way cooler than that.

Elsewhere
Nikesh Shukla’s website
Metro interview with Shukla
Some other reviews of Coconut Unlimited: Winstonsdad’s Blog; GQ.
Quartet Books

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