BOOK REVIEW / Bombay walkie-talkie: 'Breach Candy' - Luke Jennings: Hutchinson, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IT IS HARD, at first, not to judge this novel by its cover. The blurb's wheeled-out praise ('sharply comic and achingly sad by turns') does not raise expectations. Neither do the first few pages, which depressingly correspond to the biographical information about the author. Jennings has been a dancer (the Rambert School), a student of Indian languages, and a television producer and director (for a Channel 4 documentary set in Bombay). The two narrators of Breach Candy are June Webster, a recently retired ballerina, and Stanley Collinson, a Hindi-fluent television director researching a Channel 4 documentary. The novel is set in Bombay. Oh well. At least the details are going to be accurate.

The ballerina is with her sister, Beth, who is suffering from jaundice and a drunken, boorish husband. The director, who has fled from a love-affair in London, has returned to the Bombay of his childhood with a scheme to base a documentary on the Indian film industry's latest star, Lakshmi Khandekhar (for whom he cultivates a hopeless crush). Both spend most of their time boozily hanging out at the Nepean Sea Bathing Club. One of the novel's pleasures is the deft way Jennings handles their tangential relationship, the way they drift in and out of each other's field of vision, and the restraint exercised in the plotting: we have to wait two-thirds of the way into the book before they have a conversation.

Another of Jennings's skills is his ventriloquism. He captures the camp, bitchy sensitivity we imagine dancers possess, and, as for the inner mind of an intelligent but wounded television director, you could safely say that Jennings has given us the definitive portrait. This is a very neat first novel, pointless but charming, achieving a balance between resonance and unpretentiousness. As a descriptive writer, he is generous, precise and tactful. The plot's closing snap - it hinges on identity, sexual preference and the usual Forsterian stuff about India's mystery - is factitious but surprising. Perhaps Jennings should now try to write about someone apart from himself.

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