Novel of the week

The Blue Bedspread

Raj Kamal Jha <em>Picador, 228pp, £12.99</em>

Raj Kamal Jha's first novel is set in contemporary Calcutta. The premise is beguiling. The narrator, an unnamed middle-aged bachelor, spends a night writing a collection of stories, while across the room an hours-old baby girl sleeps on a blue bedspread. From the outset we learn that the child is to be taken away and adopted the following morning. The stories are to go with her, to be read when she is older - a record, however elliptical, of how she came to be in the world.

The narrator's literary efforts gradually build a picture of the fear, and the unsated hunger for love, that characterised his and his sister's childhoods. In the face of parental dysfunction, brother and sister created a sanctuary - an imaginary garden - under their shared blue bedspread. Yet it was a fragile retreat that could do little to protect them from the world outside.

The narrator's life has been shaped by some disquieting experiences of sex - by turns a brutal punishment; a consuming, blinding lust; and an act of solace with a corrosive afterburn. While much about this is depressing, there is also a sense of optimism struggling to win out. In some of his stories the narrator imagines the sleeping baby growing up. By the use of imagery common to both his past and the child's speculative future, he elaborates the central theme of The Blue Bedspread: how the destructive patterns of previous generations may be rewritten by those who follow.

The restless excursions forward and back in time, set against the stillness of the Calcutta night, create a pleasing sense of small-hours intimacy - one man alone with his thoughts and troubling memories. But the layering of time and the shifting viewpoints in the narrator's stories demand a high degree of authorial control. Jha's decision to leave his characters unnamed - together with the homogeneity of narrative voice across the different viewpoints - gives rise to occasional confusion. And while the execution of the stories is astute, the narrator's soliloquies, as he pauses from his writing, tend towards sentimentality.

There are two central "mysteries": the unknown relationship between the bachelor-narrator and the newborn child; and the question of the baby's fate. When the adoptive parents arrive to take her away, Jha resolves the latter in a way that fits well with the characterisation, but his treatment of the former is disharmonious. Throughout, Jha attempts -unsuccessfully - to obscure the nature of the bond between man and child. Their "secret" is supposed to drive the narrative and is finally revealed in a denouement notable for its heightened dramatic tone. Jha depicts the circumstances that led to the narrator's predicament with sympathy, yet in the end his willingness simultaneously to exploit it in a grand page-turning finale results in an uncomfortable prurience - an interesting effect but not, I would argue, an intentional one.

Jha's writing is fluent and he displays a keen eye for Calcutta life. He is fascinated by the allusiveness of objects. The bedspread of the title appears in different guises and subtly imprints both disillusion and hope on to its cloth. But the prose is too laden with symbolism, and the reader becomes faintly oppressed by the sinks, the sodium-vapour lamps, the garbage tips and the pigeons, all forced to function similarly.

The Blue Bedspread is a slim volume, more a novella. There is a compact power to its evocation of the decay and putative regeneration of one middle-class Indian family. Towards the end of the book, however, one senses that Jha may have padded out its modest length at the expense of narrative integrity. Digressions on Bosnia and America seem grafted on, jarring with the intimacy of setting so diligently crafted. Still, Jha addresses the emotional with great confidence, and there are moments that are genuinely moving. These appear more as glimpses in The Blue Bedspread but perhaps, as he refines his narrative voice, he will develop a steadier gaze.

Phil Whitaker is fiction critic of the "New Statesman"

This article first appeared in the 07 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Europe grows after Kosovo