Thursday, 6 December 2018

Distortion by Gautam Malkani

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Two elements combine in Gautam Malkani’s second novel to create a narrative as fractured and arresting as the image on its cover.

The first, drawn in part on his own personal experience, is the burden placed on the shoulders of young carers, distorting the parent-child relationship and forcing them to grow up well before their time.

The second is the insidious influence of the technology behind search engines and social media, which sucks in knowledge about us, our habits and preferences, and feeds back to us what we want to see – not what we need to know.

Dhilan’s mother has had cancer since he was nine years old. With an absent father and an NHS that can afford only limited home support, he has become her carer through a cycle of illness and remission so long-drawn out it has become his whole life. Now a university student, he has split his life into three: Dhilan, the carer, Dillon, who has a precarious relationship with his girlfriend Ramona, and Dylan, who earns money through a small start-up company digitising old analogue material like newspaper articles. Using these, and with a web of lies that go back so far even he doesn’t know where they begin, he walks a precarious tightrope between his different lives.

Each identity has its own online identity and search history, and so the data he sees fed back to him varies wildly. Perhaps that is why the mysterious ‘botched Botox man’ latches on to him as a person to lecture about the evils of the Internet. Or perhaps that has something to do with Dhilan’s father, a one-time journalist who seems to have left no footprint at all on the digital world.

As Dhilan’s mother enters the terminal stages of cancer, is Dillon/Dylan off chasing phantom’s, or is he about to uncover something of vital importance?

Malkani has always been a master of language. In his debut novel, Londonstani, he invented a hybrid language for his south London characters to prevent the novel from dating as fast as each generation’s slang. Here, Dhilan invents words that fill gaps in meaning that standard English cannot meet – like prettyful, which means neither pretty nor beautiful, but which he uses to describe his dying mother.

This book reads like a cry of rage – rage on the one hand at the expectations placed on young carers, and on the other, rage at the cynical exploitation, by mega-corporations and others, of the data we willingly and blindly feed them, and the distortion of the glorious possibility the Internet once offered.

Not an easy book to read, but a breathtaking one. One that feels timely and decisive and necessary.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Londonstani by Gautam Malkani, Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi, The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

Avoid If You Dislike:
Unflinching description of the last stages of death by cancer

Perfect Accompaniment: A cup of milky tea and a digital detox.

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

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