Something to Tell You
by Hanif Kureishi
Reviewed by Charlotte Kelly
In Something to Tell You, Hanif Kureishi sets up interesting cultural and structural tensions that unfortunately fail to deliver, resulting in an estranging narrative. Initially, the book holds great promise, as Jamal Khan -- a successful middle-aged psychotherapist living and working in London -- narrates the most intimate details of his life and intrigues the reader with an unexpected revelation: "I live every day with a murder. A real one. Killer, me. There; I've told you. It's out." Jamal is a man with a marked interest in secrets -- both his patients' and his own -- and he reveals plenty of them as the novel progresses, yet it becomes increasingly difficult to remain invested in him and the other characters. Ultimately, the novel flounders in a world of stilted expression and blurry morality.
As in other Kureishi novels, the characters here engage in transgressive relationships and revel in cultural counterpoints. Jamal is half British and half Pakistani; his lover Ajita has immigrated from India with a tyrannical father and gay brother; his upper-class British mother lives with her female lover; his Muslim sister Miriam frequents fetish parties and adopts a myriad of unconventional lifestyles. These dynamics provide the groundwork for interesting character development and relevant social critique, but the novel veers away from the central (and most interesting) conflict of Jamal and Ajita's lost love into self-absorbed descriptions of the psychological and behavioral quirks of the characters. As Jamal travels from London to the English countryside to Pakistan and back, he offers pithy and even insightful observations about the cultural idiosyncrasies of each place, but an interjection towards the end about the terrorist bombings that took place in London in July of 2005 feels forced rather than relevant.
One of the novel's strengths is Kureishi's unapologetic character development; he does not make his characters "pay" for their poor behavior, rendering them as flawed human beings rather than stereotypes. Still, as Something to Tell You enters into an indulgent world of prostitution, bondage clubs, strippers, and drug use, Kureishi seems to go out of his way to make each one uncomfortably unfamiliar. Sexuality is an alienating element in the novel; the frequently meaningless (and occasionally disturbing) sexual encounters serve to further distance us from the narrator. Kureishi's pseudo-Freudian comment seems to be that people are inherently selfish, powerless to their instincts, and persistently motivated by sexual desire.
As a narrator, Jamal emphasizes his educational background and goes on multiple diatribes about the history of psychoanalysis, frequently name-dropping. On the other hand, the novel includes many pop-culture references, some of which feel particularly awkward: when Jamal attends a Rolling Stones concert, his references to hanging out with an advice-spouting Sir Mick at an after-party are nearly cringe-inducing. The book thus exists at an uncomfortable borderline between literary and popular fiction, making it difficult to locate a consistent tone; the vacillation between an intellectual and a colloquial style is frustrating rather than entertaining. While Kureishi's point may be to offer Jamal Khan up for critique, the novel’s tone is too ambiguous to make this clear.
Although the title and the confessional first-person narrative imply a gesture of intimacy between author and reader, the empty speech bubble featured on the cover better summarizes its stance. Something to Tell You might be an enjoyable read for those who are particularly fond of Hanif Kureishi's edgy style, but as an introduction to his work, I would suggest looking to stronger titles such as The Black Album and The Buddha of Suburbia.
Charlotte Kelly is a frequent contributor to Rain Taxi.