At first glance, it could be the plot of any modern romance: beautiful young girl falls for older, married man. Yet the way Sheena Kalayil tells the story makes what could be a predictable meander down a well-trodden path come alive.
Rita, a quiet first year university student who has found herself, somewhat unexpectedly, at Oxford, begins an intense affair with a tutor, Ben Martin. Married for eight years to a wife with a chronic illness – and with another hidden sadness which is not revealed until much later in the novel – Ben is captivated by Rita’s beauty, while the pair bond over each other’s family backgrounds and how they have dealt with their cultural differences. However, tragedy strikes and Rita is sought out by Ben’s brother, Francois, who wants to get to know her in the hope of understanding his brother better.
The Inheritance is less quirky than Kalayil’s previous novel, The Bureau of Second Chances, which scooped her the Writers’ Guild First Novel Award earlier this year. That told the tale of a middle-aged man who returned to India after the death of his wife and ended up running an optician’s shop, where new opportunities and relationships opened up to him.
This novel, however, related mainly from the point of view of a young British-Indian girl, feels as if it draws more heavily on Kalayil’s own experience – not in terms of the specific subject matter, but in its geographical spread.
As in her previous novel, Edinburgh University graduate Kalayil is skilled at evoking a strong sense of place, with parts of this latest work set in India, Portugal and Africa as well as the UK – all locations where the author has spent time. She gives a compelling insight, too, into what it means to be rootless, with characters torn between the culture of their parents and grandparents and that of the society in which they grew up.
That said, the early chapters dealing with Rita’s relationship with Ben feel less realistic than the second part of the novel, which charts the growing friendship between Rita and Francois. Perhaps in Kalayil’s head there are scenes which the reader does not see, but if we are to believe that Ben is truly in love with Rita – as I think we are – we need to witness scenes where there is more to her than beauty and mute mystery, otherwise her role is purely aesthetic.
In the scenes we do see, the couple go for coffee and Rita sits almost entirely in silence while he makes awkward small-talk; she hardly speaks at all when she accepts a lift home to London with him and a postgraduate student.
“You’re so quiet,” says Ben to Rita when they are finally alone, having dropped the other student off at a service station, “but you have these depths to you as well.” Yet to be honest, we have seen little evidence of them.
Ben is an intelligent and interesting man, a university professor with a string of books to his name, yet he falls in love with a girl who, while presumably intelligent, does not show it in any way. His previous relationships, we discover later, have been with women who possess a level of intelligence and maturity that Rita apparently does not.
Even with these flaws, however, this is still a highly enjoyable read, and with less than a year between the publication of The Bureau of Second Chances and The Inheritance Kalayil is evidently a prolific writer. We can only hope that she will bring out a third novel just as quickly.
The Inheritance, by Sheena Kalayil, Polygon, 304pp, £8.99