British academic and human rights activist Preti Taneja has packed her debut novel with so much insight and feeling for contemporary India that her sentences seem to spill out as if from an overstuffed bag. It’s a marvel that she was able to pack in so much (plot, atmosphere, social observation, you name it) while sustaining such propulsive energy over the course of nearly 500 pages, and yet she manages to the last. The overall effect is dizzying, dazzling, and ultimately convincing and immersive ... Taneja captures her sprawling subject in language befitting such epic sweep. She stuffs her prose with metaphor and simile, which can be a bit much at times, but more often than not serves to ground this novel of big ideas in the physical world ... Taneja proves that nothing more than feelings—particularly when wielded by demented oligarchs and their misguided children—have the power to bring the world crashing down.
It’s a doorstop, full of sound and fury, more nihilistic than Shakespeare’s original, with all the blunt and dismal machinations of a soap opera. It’s not a subtle novel ... Taneja’s very busy book...leaves little room for the reader to experience the strange, shifting identifications the original play makes possible, the way we can turn from pitying Lear to loathing him ... The narrative is easy enough to track, but where is the emotional truth of the story? We get motifs instead, grist for a dozen stimulating term papers: the inheritance of historical trauma, the unresolved repercussions of Partition, vivid examples of Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival ... On a sentence level, the book is a shambles. Exposition is meted out in clunky dialogue; themes are announced in portentous, nonsensical mantras ... Although you can sense the influence of Bret Easton Ellis and Martin Amis in Taneja’s broad characterizations of her villains, they lack the savagery and panache. She is fatally attracted to syrupy metaphors and has a tin ear when it comes to humor ... we rarely meld with the consciousness of the characters. The author keeps elbowing them out of the way to telegraph her contempt for them, their venality, their obscene wealth. Still, Taneja is a writer of considerable energy and invention. She is unflinching when it comes to the world she conjures ... It's when she ceases strenuously 'writing'...and begins to ask questions of her characters and herself, that we get an entirely original take on Lear.
Linguistic multiplicity is an important part of the dialogue, and while not all readers will be able to parse the (pleasingly unitalicised) Hindi, it’s appropriately wrong-footing, and another instance in which the novel is worlds away from the kind of book that permits only an exotic sprinkling of swear words and familial terms. The naturalistic dialogue is also a brilliant counterpoint to the flat, present-tense style Taneja repeatedly employs, in which the characters are like goods for sale, laid out by an advertiser to excite our interest. Interiors and clothes, the possessions that possess us, are exhaustively detailed, blurring the boundaries between active and passive, human and inanimate ... Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement bemoans the lack of contemporary fiction addressing this biggest of subjects, but it’s practically another character here, from the freak storm which forces Devraj to take shelter among slum dwellers, to the prototype eco-car, funded by the Company’s rotten tax gains, which he uses as a sop to Sita’s green activism. This is not a polemical novel; it is too finely crafted, and too aware of the impossibility of purity, for that. Instead, Taneja has given us that rarest of beasts, a page-turner that’s also unabashedly political—with the complex, ambiguous, fiercely felt politics of our time.