Set in the opening years of the 21st century, against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war and its outpouring of refugees to Britain, lives are being altered drastically and often illegally, as money, legal aid, safe passage and hope are dealt out under the table to those deemed worthy.
Shan and Nia are employees who have ended up, separately, at Pizzeria Vesuvio by 2003, both grappling with loss and forcing themselves to begin again. The restaurant and its owner, the enigmatic and generous Tuli, become the fulcrum of their new lives, and of this ambitious if flawed novel ... Lalwani’s concern is the philosophical and moral questions surrounding migration: What is the obligation of those who are 'legal,' like Tuli and Nia, to those who are not? And how does it feel for undocumented immigrants like Shan to proffer their life stories again and again, in exchange for mercy — or, in the official terminology, asylum? ... These questions are not new, which would have been fine had Lalwani explored them more deeply. Choosing to focus on just one story line instead of many would have delivered a leaner, finer book ... These details of Lalwani’s created reality are more convincing than the overwrought descriptions of the characters’ inner lives ... From its slow beginnings the novel shakes itself off and grows restless in the final third, when the characters are stirred out of their inaction.
It’s the nuanced edges of legality that interest Lalwani, who was born in India and raised in Cardiff ... Nia has fled her alcoholic mother and sister back in Wales, a tender backstory described with a canny eye for the fluctuations of female and familial solidarity ... This could have been another formulaic tale of modern Britain, full of cringey accents and one-dimensional baddies. But Lalwani has a beautiful turn of phrase and her unashamedly literary approach makes Nia’s moral education a joy to read. If her compulsion to find a simile for every item of rubbish sticking out of a municipal bin is a little much, that is more than made up for by her strengths as a storyteller ... Shan, Tuli and Nia are intriguing, delightful, complex characters who lead us around a maze of political and philosophical ideas and questions while keeping us on the edge of our seats as the race to save Shan’s family gathers pace ... Best of all, Lalwani takes the radical (although it shouldn’t be) step of not having Nia falling in love, fancying or having sex with anyone else in the book. A female lead who isn’t defined by a romantic story arc? Yes please. Lalwani’s serious, ravishing way of writing about the secret life of Britain is just what we need.
Born in India and raised in Wales, author Nikita Lalwani moves us through the first parts of her third novel with ravishing, insightful prose ... This is just a tiny sample of Lalwani’s great skill and empathic heart ... Lalwani’s novel takes the reader under the skin and inside the souls of these characters. Its early pages are a magical read, as we are invited to ponder generosity and human kindness. But when the story bends toward plot—danger, rescue, relief—a bit of the magic is lost. It remains a very good novel, just not the very great novel we’d hoped for.