By Nikita Lalwani
Viking/Hardcover/ 229 pages/$27.82/ Available at bit.ly/ YouPeople_NL/4 stars
There is more than meets the eye with the Pizzeria Vesuvio, located somewhere in the upscale parts of south-west London.
The Italian restaurant is a place where white waitresses dish up pastas and pizzas, but in the back kitchen, the people doing the cooking are Sri Lankan immigrants.
The central figure in Nikita Lalwani’s third novel, You People, is Vesuvio’s owner, Tuli. Born in Singapore to Tamil parents who were teachers, he is charming, mysterious, secretive, and the go-to man for those in trouble.
Sent to Britain to study law by his middle-class parents, he now owns Vesuvio – though how that came to be, no one quite knows.
Vesuvio reflects a few of Tuli’s own qualities: some parts are hidden, it is selective in what it reveals, it is witness to secret deals and ultimately, it seems to possess the power to protect and heal those in need.
Tuli does many things in the shadows and enlists the help of allies whose scruples are not entirely clear, but his key aim is to help those who have no other choice. Alternatively, he may have a god complex – no one is really sure.
The story alternates between Welsh-Bengali waitress Nia and Shan, a Sri Lankan refugee seeking asylum. Both work at Vesuvio.
Nia has run away from an alcoholic, drug-addled mother and Shan has left behind his wife Devaki and young son Karu in his home country, which is in the throes of civil war.
Also working at the restaurant are a waitress who might be Spanish and a bevy of Sri Lankan cooks who are saving up to feed the dream of opening their own Pizza Express.
India-born, London-based Lalwani’s prose deftly inhabits this cosmopolitan, cloistered community. Warning Nia against making eye contact with an erstwhile associate of Tuli, who is standing outside the restaurant, Shan says: “Is dangerous. You don’t look at him, Nia, listen. Not good he know your face.”
Elements such as this, as well as the constant spectre of immigration officers barging into the restaurant, supply the novel with the ballast that makes it read like a thriller.
Tuli plays a dangerous game and his activities – bundles of cash in plastic bags, thousands of pounds in loans recorded in a secret ledger – threaten to imperil Shan, Nia and Tuli himself.
There are parts where Lalwani takes the prose too far, such as a description of Nia’s “firm, swollen, erotic curves”, but this is a minor quibble.
Importantly, the novel manages to dig deep into the mental state, emotional distress and vaulted aspirations of people like Shan and Nia.
It draws parallels between those who seek refuge from abusive, poor and derelict family lives, and those who have clambered out of a country ravaged by war, where there is no hope of imagining a future.
At its kernel, the novel poses difficult questions: Are there moral limits to helping someone who is out of options? What about the risks – and how much is acceptable? What about the repercussions and are they worth it?
It also urges those in positions of privilege to look differently at the people who live at the margins and consider if they, too, deserve a shot at a better life.
If you like this, read: Amnesty by Aravind Adiga (Pan Macmillan, 2020, $29.95, available at bit.ly/Amnesty_AA). Danny, an undocumented Sri Lankan immigrant who works as a cleaner in Sydney, suspects one of his clients has murdered another, but fears being deported if he goes to the police.
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