BOOKS
01/22/2015 09:45 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2015

The Book We're Talking About: 'A Bad Character' by Deepti Kapoor

Knopf

A Bad Character
by Deepti Kapoor
Knopf, $24.00
Published January 20, 2015

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:

A fiery, incandescent debut, A Bad Character artfully captures the fragmented psyche and perilous desires of a woman alone in New Delhi.

“These words are his cremation,” says the woman narrator of A Bad Character, of the boyfriend we’ve learned is dead in the first line of the novel. Deepti Kapoor’s debut novel smolders with the submerged rage, pain, abandonment and erotic desire that drive her heroine, Idha; it’s a paean to a relationship already in ashes, and to a beloved now gone beyond recovery.

Idha narrates the novel in retrospect, speaking from a time long after her boyfriend’s death of her memories of their affair. The story unfolds in vivid vignettes. The two meet in a café in New Delhi, where the young, virginal girl catches the eye of a man several years older. He’s spent years in America, has a strange accent, and isn’t like the dull men with whom her aunt has tried to arrange marriages for her. Most importantly, recalls Idha, “I am pretty and he is ugly. And the secret is this turns me on.”

Through brief glimpses into her childhood, we learn the skeletal information about her upbringing -- a father who abandoned her and her mother for his job in Singapore, a nervous mother who died when the narrator was only 17, and an officious aunt who takes her in to finish school and find a good husband. At the time of the fateful meeting, she’s 20 and attending university.

But these prosaic facts have relatively little overt bearing on the events of the book. Idha has struggled throughout her young life with a sense of alienation from those around her and an inability to incorporate herself into groups, even her own family and culture. It’s the inner twistings of her tortured psyche, and the claustrophobic relationship she engulfs herself in, that feel real to her, and therefore to us. While familial memories seem vague and blurred, she vividly recalls sneaking off, as a very young girl, to see cremations taking place by the Ganga: “The moustache zips out of existence like a magic trick, the eyes melt, the yellow layer of fat beneath his skin becomes exposed, it starts to sizzle and pop [...] He is burning away; he’s dead and he is disappearing again.”

Idha's sudden, intense romance with the man she met in the coffee shop both assuages her fear of utter disconnection and exacerbates her tendency toward it; he tells her his parents died in a car accident and left him so much money he has no need to work, so she cuts class and they spend their days entombed in his air-conditioned apartment or exploring the corners of the city in his car. In him, she finds freedom from the need to conform and cater to familial and social demands; instead, of course, she has her boyfriend’s needs to acquiesce to. With him, however, her eccentricities finally seem valuable rather than contemptible.

A Bad Character has drawn comparisons to Marguerite Duras’ class- and race-conscious erotic classic The Lover, but it also bears echoes of Elizabeth O’Neill’s Nine and a Half Weeks, a pseudonymously published erotic memoir about the author’s passionate affair with a man who leads her into increasingly sadomasochistic sexual experiments. As in Nine and a Half Weeks, A Bad Character hints only slightly at the dark turn the ardent love-making and all-consuming infatuation might take, at least until we’re deeply involved in the psyche of the narrator and the sexual dynamic of the couple.

The great strength and vitality of Kapoor’s novel lies in the episodic, mercurial narration; her writing has the flexible, lyrical cadence of a prose poem, flitting lightly from scene to scene to scene in a matter of sentences. This artful rendering of her narrator’s psyche allows her to make striking juxtapositions that gracefully elicit her recurrent motifs and underlying themes. If the book ever lags, it’s when these vignettes seem to slip into long strands of narrative or extensive exposition, as Kapoor’s blunt, searing language is at its most compelling in these brief, scattered glimpses. A Bad Character is a powerful, psychologically acute, elegantly crafted debut that promises great things to come from Kapoor.

What other reviewers think:
India Today: "This is a book to be read in one go because the sadness just overwhelms you. Yet it is also liberating, especially for any young woman who wants to live life looking her demons in the eye."

The Telegraph: "The backdrop of Delhi and its class structures are drawn with sharp detail, but Idha’s voice –- that of a young woman struggling with the world’s sometimes violent plans for her –- could ring out from anywhere."

Kirkus: "Overfreighted with the angst of youth, this novel is at its most impressive in its impressionistic evocation of a dazzling, dangerous cityscape."

Who wrote it?
A Bad Character is Deepti Kapoor’s first novel. She grew up in north India and now lives in Goa. She has worked as a journalist in New Delhi, where she also attended university.

Who will read it?
Fans of erotically charged literary fiction, as well as readers who love novels focused on introspective, troubled women protagonists.

Opening lines:
“My boyfriend died when I was twenty-one. His body was left lying broken on the highway out of Delhi while the sun rose in the desert to the east. I wasn’t there, I never saw it. But plenty of others saw, in the trucks that passed by without stopping and from the roadside dhaba where he’d been drinking all night.”

Notable passage:
“It’s in this desperate life of preservation that death is held. Holding on to life only to die unblemished, to make it to the end, untouched by sin. And for what? What then? The girl sees this, and yet there’s nothing to be done, nowhere to go. Nothing for her to do but grit her teeth, calm the voices inside.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the publication date for the book A Bad Character. The post has been updated to correct the date.

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