Identities are carved out in a multicultural Britain

Jessie Neilson reviews The One who Wrote Destiny, by Nikesh Shukla, published by Allen & Unwin. 

"If the one who wrote destiny is looking for a fight, then come for me. If the one who wrote destiny doesn't want me to peer into its code, then come for me. If the one who wrote destiny believes in their own existence, come for me. Either way, I'm not afraid of what I don't believe in."

Neha is a second-generation British Kenyan Indian, and she is fed up with the perceived uselessness of the few people to whom she is close. She is an expert in the field of voice recognition software, and has another project in mind before she passes away from the cancer that also claimed her mother Nisha.

She would like to reach far and wide to distant relations to map their precise family tree, in order to develop a programme, the "death predictor", which can accurately determine individuals' approximate life spans and causes of death, based on the repetition of DNA patterns in a bloodline.

Her free time is filled with reading digital vintage-era Star Trek comics, as well as researching everything she can about her specific cancer, in order to claim ownership of it.

Their father, Mukesh, is also still floating around, but as a family they are not close. In fact, she is loathe to contact them to tell them about her cancer, preferring to deal with it herself.

Neha despairs of her father, as he lives in the past, treasuring his beloved late wife. She was the object of his terrible love poetry: "You are the hole in my sock./ My brain clouds".

The One who Wrote Destiny is an experimental novel of sorts. Divided into four sections, it begins with father Mukesh's arrival in the mid-'60s in Keighley, north of London; an area at this time known for being accepting of "coloureds".

The reader hears his experiences of racism and abuse as he struggles to survive in a white, class-based England. He channels introversion in order to cope. This section is a confessional piece addressed to his future daughter, and is, among other things, a claiming of his destiny; a taking charge against violence, hard luck, and abusive situations.

This section and the following, which is Neha's near-contemporary experience of life in England as a woman from a minority culture, are the strongest. Neha is intelligent, determined, and cynically witty, despite her empty, hacking cough and her growing decrepitude. Hers is a recording of her demise, and the steps she takes to face her reality and live in the present.

The remaining two sections detail her brother's point of view, followed by their maternal grandmother's. The reader is privy to their experiences as undervalued and resented immigrants.

This is Nikesh Shukla's third novel. He is also a columnist for The Guardian.

While uneven, The One who Wrote Destiny highlights the insidiousness of racism and prejudice streaking through generations, as well as the feistiness of individuals in disallowing shame to attach. Through their pride and resilience, these individuals work to carve out a place of identity and safety in a multicultural Britain against, at times, fairly substantial resistance.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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