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Gods Without Men

Gods Without Men
Hari Kunzru
Hamish Hamilton, 400pp, £12.99

The overbearing presence in Hari Kunzru's latest novel is not a human character, but a geological formation. The Pinnacles, a three-fingered rock formation in the Californian desert, is the point linking apparently random events that occur across centuries.

The narrative is dominated by Jaz, a Wall Street banker, and his wife, Lisa, who lose their four-year-old autistic son, Raj, at the site during a disastrous family holiday. Their story shows Kunzru at his best, exploring themes of racial and cultural identity that will be familiar to readers of his first two novels. In remarkably few words, he gives an emotionally resonant account of their relationship.

Jaz is the son of Punjabi immigrants, and although he has broken away from the traditionalism of his family, he still acutely feels that he is "a single generation away from the village". Lisa, on the other hand, is Jewish and all-American and has a romanticised view of his background, until she sees "the cramped strange-smelling house full of inscrutable angry people". She is deeply wounded that his parents reject her because she is white.

Raj's birth adds its own strains, exacerbating the couple's subtle cultural differences. A later account of the media witch-hunt that ensues when he goes missing is equally sparse and powerful.

However, Jaz and Lisa's tale is far from being the only narrative in the novel, which has an almost dizzying scope. These stories are not directly connected, but they all come back to the rocks, which are imbued with significance - a Native American myth casts them as the place where the land of the dead meets that of the living. They also become a focal point for people seeking to commune with inhabitants of outer space across the decades. We are left guessing whether these other-worldly events are happening in "real life".

In places, the stories mirror each other. In the 1950s, a young mother attending a con­vention on outer space loses her daughter. She returns to the desert to wait for her to come back, and a hippie community springs up around the rocks. It is the beginning of a cult, the Ashtar Galactic Command, which believes in alien life. We see another interracial marriage, this time in the 1920s, when an ethnologist's wife leaves him for a Native American and his jealousy unleashes a fatal sequence of events.

It is testament to Kunzru's ability as a writer that Gods Without Men presents so many characters sketched so vividly. The free love in the Ashtar Galactic Command is evoked through the eyes of Dawn, a wide-eyed teenage girl who joins the cult; so, too, is the group's descent into paranoia. Dawn's own downward spiral is relayed brutally in less than a page.

It can be difficult, however, to see the wood for the trees amid all these narratives. It is clear that certain characters particularly interest Kunzru, and we learn details about them which are not strictly necessary for the plot. Hence, barely a hundred pages from the end, the book reintroduces Laila, a teenage Iraqi refugee who has appeared briefly, and draws out her conflicting feelings and troubled past. Her story is absorbing in its own right, but, as with many of the others across the broad sweep, readers will struggle to fit it into the whole.

Conversely, the novel loses interest in other characters. It opens with a guilt-ridden veteran of the Second World War living out in the desert to atone for mistreating his wife and attempting to commune with outer space. Later, there are echoes of this man's story but we do not meet him again, and one gets the feeling that he, like some others, has simply been forgotten.

The stories are bound together lightly by a theme of disappearances, mysterious reappearances, unexplained occurrences and the search for mystical answers. Even though there is only the loosest of links between the tales, the subtlety makes its own point. The reader's attempt to make connections between the lives depicted here reflects the characters' search for pattern and coherence amid the chaos of the universe.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule