Malaysian readers are going to find themselves in familiar territory with Nikita Lalwani's Booker longlisted Gifted.
The novel is partly based on the story of teenage prodigy Sufiah Yusof born to a Malaysian mother and Pakistani father who became something of a cause célèbre in this country when she went missing from her Oxford college before giving herself up to the authorities citing parental abuse and describing her home life as “living hell”.
Her father feared she had been abducted. But then an e-mail arrived from his missing daughter. In it, Yusof wrote that her parents had made her life a "living hell." She accused them of "15 years of physical and emotional abuse," including long study sessions in a house kept icy cold supposedly to improve her concentration.
Lalwani’s novel raises the question of how much can you push your kids academically?
Rumika is 10 years old 2 months 13 days 48 minutes and 4 seconds old when the novel opens. When she was just 5, her teacher came to the house to tell her parents that she was a gifted child, and that this gift should be nurtured.
Rumika's father, Mahesh, is a maths professor at Cardiff university, and knows that hard work is the immigrant's path to respect and recognition. He takes the idea of coaching his daughter on board and runs with it, imposing a strict regime on her that borders at times on abuse.
Rumika longs for normalcy, but as she is forced to study ever harder, her relationship with her cold and scornful father deteriorates even further and she also finds her isolation from her friends increasing. As she enters adolescence she has to carve some freedom for herself, but ends up doing things which are risky and stupid - shop lifting, calling emergency services just because she wants to speak to someone, and harming herself. She also, quite comically, becomes addicted to cumin and munches her way through vast quantities of it. The only period of respite is a trip to India with her mother, Shreene.
Lalwani does a very good job of depicting the sense of loneliness and dislocation in the family, and gets right inside her characters and exposes them. No matter how unlikable Mahesh is, we can understand his motivations and fears. Shreene is caught up in traditional notions of propriety and finds it difficult to navigate the compromises that must be made, not only to adapt to British society, but also to be able to understand and reach out to her daughter.
This might make for painful reading but there are also some wonderfully comic moments in the novel, my favourite - Shreene trying out a bikini wax after reading about it in a woman's magazine.
Rumika wins a place to Oxford, one of the youngest students ever allowed to do a degree course and the move gives her some of the freedom she has been waiting for. Lalwani builds up the sequence of events convincingly and Rumi’s actions come as no surprise. In fact we’re cheering for her as she asserts her independence in the final scenes of the book.
This is a novel that young adult readers, particularly those experiencing examination pressure themselves will enjoy very much indeed. It is also an excellent cautionary tale for overly ambitious parents who should be treated to a copy of it by their kids immediately!
(Many thanks to Kinokuniya for sponsoring my copy of the novel!)
Postscript (30/3/08) :
There's a sad footnote to Sufiah's story, which Rocky has put up on his blog. Kak Teh met her in happier times.