Kiran Shah is a little different compared to his peers in 1980s Western New York; he is Indian, obviously gay, and also somewhat geeky. His older sister Preeti is more conventional in her ways; while Indian, she has converted to Christianity (and religion will be a large influence on the family in this book), and she fits in well as a pretty cheerleader. She even dates baseball star Shawn for a period in middle school. But Kiran has his own secret relationship with Shawn, which may have contributed to Shawn’s public humiliation of Preeti when they are 12, and Kiran is only 8. The guilt from this event follows him into adulthood, and even spreads out to affect his family.
No Other World is partly a story about Kiran, and partly a story about his family and their individual struggles. It spans the time between the summer in the mid-80s when Preeti is molested and the summer in the late 90s when Kiran has a breakdown and goes to live with his cousin Bharat in India. The narrative also includes the perspectives of his mother Shanti, and his cousin, who was once a guest of the Shah family in America, and experiences a role reversal in the final section of the book.
The Shahs have their share of struggles; Nishit’s brother Prabhu lost his wife in childbirth and fell into a deep depression. He, too, came to live with the Shahs in America for a time, but spent the entirety of his visit locked in a bedroom. Shanti is given a perspective for her wandering eye during Kiran’s childhood, which results in her carrying on a small affair with neighbor Chris Bell, a classically white Christian man and the antithesis to her small, dark husband. Her affair is half-assed and fleeting, and not at all rewarding to anyone. It’s a good example of how all the dramatic elements/scenes in the book tend to fall flat. I’m all for a good affair, a tragic death, a fateful misunderstanding, etc. But these things never paid off for me in the text.
I think I was left feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled because there was so much great stuff happening in the first third: beautiful prose, interesting and complex characters, allusions to some greater mystery. But all that seemed to lead me to was a cliff that these great elements launched themselves off of like lemmings. I think the novel lost direction around the middle, and struggled to regain it. I wanted to like it more, because the beginning reminded me strongly of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, which are some of my favorite works of fiction and do a lot to explain the Indian-American experience. But it lacked the follow-through that her stories have, and by the time Kiran was in India, I had completely lost interest in his and his cousin’s struggles.
This is a common problem for the short story writer’s first novel: in trying to write a longer story, they keep adding plot points and characters and POVs to maintain the excitement, but lose track of them and the story they set out to tell. As it is, this doesn’t feel like a complete novel, and more like a preliminary draft. I am still very interested in the story Mehta was trying to tell, but I was left not knowing what I was supposed to think or feel about it, because it seemed each chapter was trying to change the focus from a struggle with homosexuality, to adultery, to religion, to marriage, to foreigners, without any of them being fully realized. Perhaps most disappointing was the end, which veered off in an undeservedly dramatic direction, and did little to resolve the many issues brought up throughout the story.
A theme that the title hints at is that in “other worlds” or “other universes,” these characters may have done things differently or experienced different fates. But there is no other world, and their lives played out as they did, which is all understandable, but Mehta’s characters never attempt to connect the dots or learn from these events, the way we all try to. Their passivity in their own lives led to my own passive interest in them.
Kate Schefer has a BA in Creative Writing from Elon University, and currently lives in Minneapolis with her boyfriend. She is on a never-ending hunt for the best cup of coffee, and the best park bench upon which to sit and read a book, and drink said coffee. If you approach her, she will make you wait for a response until the end of the chapter, because she never uses bookmarks.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.