- GODS WITHOUT MEN by HARI HUNZRUI had not encountered Hari Kunzru before, despite the fact he was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003. In fact, I knew so little of him, that on starting the book he published this year, Gods Without Men, I wrongly presumed he was American; the control and confidence he uses within his setting...mostly an area of the California desert called the Pinnacles...convinced me he knew the US well. The breathtaking sweep of the novel immediately reminded me of Don Delillo, Tom Wolfe or even John Irving.
The novel bobs back in forth in time, from 1778 to 2008. The main theme is that of Jaz, who has a Punjabi background and his wife, Lisa, who is Jewish. They’re from New York and live acutely New Yorker lives – Jaz is a computer whiz working within Wall Street. Their story is the tragedy of a disrupted holiday in a holiday resort close to the Pinnacles. Their autistic son, Raj, disappears into the desert, setting up a dramatic hunt that reminds the reader of recent media hype around ‘missing children’ cases.
The modernity of these lives is counterpointed by other characters that are also drawn to the desert . These include mystic North American Indians, hippies, an eighteenth century Spanish official, a British rock star, a UFO quester called Schmidt, a man with murder on his mind and a shell-shocked soldier from the first world war. Hari Kunzru manages to bring all his characters together using specific themes and leitmotifs, together with a quote at the front of the novel from Balzac...in the desert there is nothing...C'est Dieu sans les hommes...
I wondered, at first, as the myriad sections of the novel got underway, if this book was going to be too conspicuously clever for its own good, but Kunzru’s main objective, thank heavens, is to tell stories...they were all extremely readable and I was soon hooked by the characters’ lives, experiences and personalities, which allow the reader to become involved while the underlying text makes itself known.
I thought of comparing this book to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas; it has the breadth and quirky approach to structure that Mitchell likes to take, alongside a gripping narrative that delves deeply into the many characters. But in my opinion, the scope of Gods Without Men has even more control and heart than Atlas, and I loved Kunzru’s concentration on one landscape, which he describes so vividly that it becomes a character in its own right.
Gods Without Men was not eventually short-listed for the Man Booker this year; I thought that was short-sighted of the judges. It also proves that taste in literature is a subjective thing...I’d be interested to hear what other people think.