Review Published in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
(Leading writers cover the world of new books, ideas and performing arts)
SMELL. Radhika Jha. 309pp. Quartet. Paperback, £10. 0 7043 160 5.
Radhika Jha's first novel, Smell, begins on a false note. A widowed woman sends her daughter off to an uncle and aunt in Paris, goes off with her two young sons to England, remarries and, but for a few letters and phone calls, forgets about her daughter, leaving her to seek her fortune on the streets of Paris. It is difficult to believe that an Indian woman, even an Indian woman settled in Kenya, would ever agree to such a fate for her daughter and not seek somehow to have her married off to as respectable a Gujarati spouse as possible.
Disbelief has to be kept suspended for the rest of this unnecessarily long novel, as the heroine -the beautiful, whimsical and somewhat inane Ms Leela Patel -in turn forgets about her mother and gets at Paris with a vengeance. She soon escapes from the aunt-uncle trap, and armed with some broken French, moves into a beautiful model's house. When the model's keeper protests, Leela is passed on as an au pair to a rich French couple. Leela then proceeds to sleep with the man of the house, and when that ends, she hangs around with some intellectuals, drinking wine and gathering attitudes. Having moved into the bed of a violent business tycoon who alternately worships her and beats her up, she returns to the intellectuals and finds love. Using her sex appeal as a passport, Leela does other things too. She flowers into an exquisite chef, then a fusion-food queen and finally a tough business partner. She shops expensively, reads widely and travels far. Between these episodes, she walks the streets at night, rides the Metro, chats up strange men and gets drunk in bars.
Since she is constant only in her contradictions, it is difficult to make out what Leela truly is -a woman on the make who will bed her way to the top, or a poor little misused thing in search of true love. The evidence is strongly in favour of the first interpretation, as, besides the three long and explicit sexual liaisons, there are several other flirtations, gropes and missed opportunities. Leela's singular quality -and Jha's only hope of turning this novel into a serious work -seems to be her ability to distinguish and describe different smells. Every few pages, we are reminded of this attribute which is clearly meant to work as a unifying theme. In the end, however, a sharp nose and some fine descriptions of Paris are not enough to salvage the book.