A review of Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Something to Tell You
By Hanif Kureishi
Faber and Faber (distributed by Allen & Unwin on 4 April 2008)
Paperback, ISBN 9780571238743, RRP $32.95

Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel Something to Tell You follows the first person musings of Jamal Karim, a psychoanalyst who is in the late stages of mid-life. Jamal has a secret, and seems to have reached a point where the secret has reached its nexus, and he either must face it, or collapse. The language of the book is confident, and often rich, reflecting the insular nature of the protagonist, and the setting is full of the vibrancy of the period in which this book moves: from Jamal’s past in the mid-1970s to today. There is a tremendous amount of detail, and a living record of the trends, books, theories, and gadgets that make up the modern world as we knew, and know it, and it’s reasonably fast-paced, despite the paralysis that takes over the narrator. But throughout the book is an unsettling superficiality which jars with the fact that the narrative itself gets forward motion from the thoughts and recollections of Jamal.

As with Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beautyor John Irving’s Until I Find You, the novel is weighed down by an almost constant and in a way, irrelevant, plethora of namedropping. From the psychoanalysts who inspire Jamal: “Freud, Lacan, Laing”, to book titles sprinkled at random through the text, authors (“Sade, Beardley, Hugh Hefner”), albums, performers (“Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield”), and political rulers are all listed, with little reason other than to demonstrate popular culture. Worse though are the real life characters that keep popping into the story – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Kate Moss, Tom Stoppard, Marianne Faithfull, or Eric Cantona, an ex-Manchester United football player, and a range of other “names” are all woven into the storyline, having lunch, therapy, or being introduced to people.

It’s easy to imagine that Kureishi’s intent here was to provide a sense of the era, and the immediate colour that these characters conjure, but instead these dropped-in names turns the book into a compendium of the times and detracts from both the character development and the fictive dream. Each time it happens: “Tom Stoppard, an acquantainence of Henry’s, had suggested Henry might enjoy Mick.” (153) it drags the reader out of an already thin story and further dilutes the believability, since each of the mentioned celebrities are full scale complex characters in real life but cardboard cutouts in this novel.

Jamal talks us through the story, and provides analyses of what he sees, but we never feel it, either from Jamal, or from the supporting characters, who, like Jamal, come across as superficial, unpleasant, and self-obsessed. There’s Miriam, Jamal’s wild single mother sister, who introduces his theatre director friend Henry to group sex:

‘He f*cks the women, but he always comes in me. That’s the rule. He’s mine and he bloody well know it, otherwise I’ll tattoo my name onto his arse myself.’ She said. ‘Jamal, I’m warning you, if anyone annoys me today, I’m in one of my moods, they’re gonna get it, okay?’ (281)

Then there’s Ajita, his long lost love, who has her own secret. Ajita breezes into his life at University and provides a catalyst for the murder that destroys Jamal’s life. But neither Ajita, nor the murder that she inspires, has enough force to drive the narrative. She never says anything of substance and instead is characterised by her designer clothing, her beauty, and the good sex Jamal had with her. Next there’s Henry, his colourful, larger-than-life friend who couples with his sister. Henry speaks in grand platitudes almost all the time, in a way that is as unbelievable as the sex life he develops, which is described in more detail than is required.

Something to Tell You just ends, one feels, when Kureishi tires of writing, without any real denouement or sense of motion for the reader. Unfortunately, and despite the clear interest that Kureishi takes in conveying the decadence of London between the ’70s and the ’90s, most readers will tire of Jamal’s paralysis and voyeuristic recount long before that point. Which is a shame, because Kureishi certainly has a way with words and there are times when the narrative voice is actually powerful, such as in the opening page: “I’m into a place where language can’t go, or where it stops – the ‘indescribable’.

Unfortunately, in this novel, little is shown and almost everything is described, in such superficial, tedious details, that the reader never develops empathy. There are a whole range of topics raised that could have been explored: sexual abuse; sexual freedom versus repression; migration and return; how we come to terms with the past, but all of these are unexplored in any depth, and certainly sit at the outside of Jamal’s naval gazing, which mostly focuses on his organ size, and why he can’t commit to anything.

Read Something to Tell You as a kind of fictionalized memoir or social commentary of the cultural events of West London as it moves through the ’70s to the present day, and it will be reasonably amusing, especially if it brings back any personal memories. But try to read it as a cohesive piece of fiction, and the endless first person self-references of the narrator simply aren’t enough to make this novel work.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.