Book review

In the kitchen of a London pizzeria in 2003, a cook named Shan is remembering. In this early memory, his mother is imparting a lesson to Shan: “Your honor is the color of the self,” she says in his mind, “it should be steadfast … to be revealed as false — it is to be leached of all your color as a person, to watch it dissolve into the water and slip away through the gutter down the alley.”

Also in this pizzeria, Pizzeria Vesuvio, a front-of-house employee named Nia is remembering something from just that morning, when she observed all the bankers on their commutes, all of them seeming “full to bursting with choices.” She is also observing other things, including the proprietor of the restaurant, Tuli. “You could argue that he had rescued everyone who was there from something or someone,” Nia thinks. “An audacious heart.”

In Nikita Lalwani’s third novel, “You People,” Tuli and his pizzeria are the axle on which a multifaceted story turns. Told in chapters alternating between the third-person perspectives of Shan and Nia, the book has the feel of an ensemble story, and in many ways is one — the interconnected nature of people held together by the spokes of place, circumstance, grief, longing, love and oppression is the major tableau on which the story is painted.

Shan, like much of the kitchen staff, is a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka. He left his wife and child in Jaffna with the intention of bringing them to London, but as time ticks by, his worry and guilt grow.

Nia, meanwhile, has left her family behind in a different way. The daughter of a Bengali father she doesn’t know and a Welsh mother succumbing to a worsening struggle with addiction and mental illness, Nia goes to university as soon as she can, while her younger sister Mira remains at home. But their “codependence,” as Nia describes it, as well as the constant hustle of working while studying, led to worsening grades and Nia losing her scholarship.

Tuli, who is Tamil and grew up in Singapore, sees himself as a Robin Hood figure, providing jobs and housing above the restaurant for undocumented immigrants and refugees, as well as helping people with debt, food and legal matters. But Tuli is a mysterious character whose relationship with power reveals a more complicated story for all in his orbit.

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Lalwani has a knack for close observation of people: their mannerisms and motivations, the way they relate to each other in different situations. This makes for potent storytelling, especially when those involved are reckoning with and surviving racialization and xenophobia, putting them in the position to fight against it internally and externally to preserve their humanity.

Early in the book, the owner of a Polish cafe down the street runs to Vesuvio to warn of an in-progress Immigration Enforcement raid. Shan’s initial reaction is beautifully rendered: “There is something in him that rejects the fact that he has to leave … if he accepts that this is for real, then it is to shake hands with a pestilent understanding … it will be an acceptance of the total instability of his life. And in that way lies a terror that he must not encounter.”

“The volatile glory of hope,” Lalwani writes, “this sickly desire like the white phosphorous clouds of chemical warfare — depleting you and then disappearing without a trace” is braided into the often empty promise of the word “safe,” described as “a numb-drugged, sugar-haze of a word.” The specific betrayals of being denied hope and safety harm the protagonists in different ways. For Shan, it’s fear and grief about his family and his tenuous position under the radar of the government. Nia, whose citizenship, youth and white-passing privilege might seem a relative boon, is already “looking back at life and saying to herself, I was young then, as though that idea of youth was over. She had the sense that she’d do this always … struggling with this curtailed experience, pushing forward on the treadmill of the moment even as it carried her back, over and over.”

Crucially, though, pain is not the defining experience of these characters. Their lives bear scars of an all-too-real white supremacist and nationalist violence that fueled inequity and terror in 2003 as it does now, but Lalwani deftly avoids trauma porn. Nia and Shan embody their capacities for love, and their lives and memories are populated with moments in which they were loved, too. Nia’s childhood with her sister and mother, though hard, was joyful; Shan’s past, despite harm in Sri Lanka and the U.K., is shafted through with light from his childhood and the family he has built.

The prose itself floats the story into a plane of effervescence with rich imagery — “The sky is viscous and turquoise: the hot, demented turquoise of a day filled with promises” — and bursts of humor. And though the plot arcs from a quieter emotionality to a more dramatic crescendo, the story remains grounded through its relentless commitment to humanity as its grounding pull.

Perhaps Nia’s love of books speaks best to the way fiction can exist in the world. “There had always been this relationship with fiction, she imagined it could offer her blueprints for living, loving, dying — that it could save her, let her know how things should be.” Fiction is not a blueprint, but it can be a gilded mirror, or a four-dimensional map. Living, loving, dying — “You People” is an elegant work of all three.

NEW FICTION

‘You People’

Nikita Lalwani, McSweeney’s Publishing, 230 pp., $26