Review published on August 15, 2012.Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt
Natasha Soobramanien was the winner of the Bridport Prize’s short story category in 2009. Genie and Paul, billed as an ‘imaginative reworking of the French 18th century classic, Paul et Virginie’ by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, is her debut novel.
Genie and Paul opens in March 2003 with the aftermath of a tropical cyclone, Kalunde, which ‘peaked to a Category Five in the middle of the Indian Ocean’. Genie Lallan, one of the book’s protagonists, is introduced as ‘a twenty-six-year-old part-time postgraduate student in housing studies’. She is being rushed into hospital as the cyclone ravages island after island. Her life, at first, runs parallel with the disaster.
After waking up several days later, Genie goes to stay with her mother, sleeping in her old bedroom whose walls were painted in ‘a flaky pink like dried calamine lotion’. She soon realises that her brother Paul, who was with her on the night she was admitted to hospital, has disappeared, stripping his boyhood room of its possessions and fleeing, leaving no clue of where he has gone. ‘But it was not just Paul who was missing,’ she muses. ‘Half of that night had disappeared too’.
The Lallan family, originally from Mauritius, moved to London to stay with the children’s grandparents when ‘Genie was five and Paul ten’. There are many disparities between the siblings almost from the outset of the novel. Genie is placid whilst ‘skinny, surly’ Paul is angry and frustrated at being moved halfway across the world. There are also differences in the ways in which the pair have been integrated into their new lives in England. Genie feels she belongs in London – ‘I don’t feel I was ever really there. I remember hardly any of it. No, it’s not my country at all. This [England] is’ – whereas her brother does not: ‘Ever since we came to London, I’ve been yearning to come back [to Mauritius]’. This sense of belonging and the struggle to find it is realised sensitively by Soobramanien.
Foreshadowings of events are cleverly written about – why the Lallan family left Genie’s father, the whereabouts of Genie and Paul’s half brother, Jean-Marie, and where Paul has disappeared to, amongst others. The reader is aware of sad, serious and sinister events almost from the outset of the novel, but these events only gradually reveal themselves.
Soobramanien’s character descriptions are perceptive and have been rather originally shaped. Genie and Paul as children view their grandfather as ‘gradually flaking away. His skin was grey-brown, dusty with a light white scurf like the bloom on old chocolate’, and one of Paul’s friends is perceived as ‘a smudged charcoal sketch of a man’. The reader is drip-fed information about the characters and gradually learn about them as the story unfolds. Although the characters themselves are relatively well-developed, it sometimes feels a little difficult to empathise with them. This distancing may be due to the third person perspective which the author has utilised. First person perspectives have been used in several of the shorter chapters, in which other characters describe their pasts and muse about where they think Paul may have fled to. Such chapters are written from the points of view of Paul and Genie’s mother and his ex-girlfriend Eloise, amongst others. Whilst the split narrative technique works well in Genie and Paul, the first person narrative voices used are rather similar to one another and it consequently renders it a little difficult to distinguish who is saying what.
The prose style throughout does not adhere to conventions and no apostrophes have been used to denote dialogue between characters. Phrases in Mauritian Creole have been included throughout, along with their translations. This is a nice touch which culturally grounds the book. Soobramanien’s language choices work well, particularly when she is describing the squalor around her protagonists. She illustrates how it feels ‘to sit out in the unkind light and the cold and the sour smell of the river, surrounded by wasteland and tower blocks’ and to see ‘the rows of hooded homeless mummified in their sleeping bags, heads bent monk-like in the warm morning rain’.
Genie and Paul does not use a chronological narrative technique. Instead, chapters flit around in time and we are often thrust from the children’s early past into the present day and back again within the space of just three chapters. Some of the narrative details do feel a little repetitive at times, merely due to the way in which different characters utter the same phrases. Whilst the narrative perspective differs somewhat, Genie and Paul has rather a similar feel to it as Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. The characters within both novels – Paul et Virginie and Great Expectations respectively – are incredibly fond of the book which the retelling they are featured in denotes, and it is clear that both authors are also enamoured with the stories which they have reworked.