BOOK REVIEW / Reader, she married him - 1350 pages later: 'A Suitable Boy' - Vikram Seth: Orion, 20 pounds

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THE NEW publishing house Orion is offering A Suitable Boy as the brightest star in its belt. The book arrives garlanded with superlatives: it is the longest one-volume novel in English; the first editor to see the manuscript could not sleep until he had finished it; the enormous sum of money paid for it is unlikely to be quickly recouped. This last detail is meant to persuade us that Seth is more akin to the great 19th-century novelists than to contemporary giants like Jilly Cooper or Julie Burchill.

If the literary gossip writers are to be believed, Salman Rushdie greeted his compatriot with the faintly crushing 'I hear you've written a soap opera.' It is true that A Suitable Boy is devoid of stylistic acrobatics or deadbeat minimalism. But there can be no doubt that Seth is a literary maker of delicate and considered judgement. The book may be too long for late-20th-century convenience, but it has certainly not outgrown its own strength.

The Golden Gate, Seth's verse novel of Californian life, was a dandified virtuoso performance in Byronic stanzas, filtered through Charles Johnston's translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, its metrical constraints counterpointed by occidental freedoms. Readers who delighted in it may at first be disconcerted by the apparent narrative literalness of A Suitable Boy. The story begins at the wedding of the sister of its heroine, Lata. Her widowed mother, Mrs Rupa Mehra, wishes to find her headstrong daughter a good Hindu boy of the right caste to marry. The year is 1950, three years after Partition. But there is no friction evident, on this gala day, between the Hindu and Muslim families, all respectable and prosperous, who seethe among the flowers in the garden of the groom's parental home. Seth uses these characters as separate strands in the densely textured plot he is weaving towards a final pattern.

The love story of a girl in the West could not sustain the weight that the story of Lata and her various suitors conveys, for hers is also the story of her family, her religion, her sex, and of a changing India. The boy who is least suitable is most attractive; he is Muslim. The boy with whom she has most affinity, Amit, a poet and writer who resembles his author ('Yes, I'm the clever one,' he is made resignedly to say), is too like her. The boy of the right caste has tiny eyes, chews paan and says 'Cawnpore' in the British way, instead of Kanpur, which irritates clever, emancipated Lata.

Her decision is the aesthetic making of the book. It comes at the latest possible moment, illuminating the interconnected narratives of the novel with a recognition of compromise and weakness that can bear comparison with the great image in Middlemarch of a candle held to innumerable spots on a cracked mirror. Lata's irresolution - 'I like everything,' she says brightly, 'but at different times' - holds in tension the large political themes: the dismantling of huge private estates, the keel of rural immutability that has endured in India for thousands of years, the sudden irruption of violence often linked to religion. Once again, it is Seth's sympathy that suffuses this book - for the ageing courtesan with her secret that almost brings death; for her green parakeet; for the prodigiously mathematical little boy who sees Euclidean configurations on the ceiling of a tent; for a pompous English don inveighing against Joyce; for a man at prayer on his roof.

For one brief paragraph only does Seth's modest mimetic prose rest on a heightened note. The burden of this short meditation on death is the sad, necessary, reassuring, atomised recurrence of things, a theme that runs through the novel (and of course through Hinduism) in the form of the river Ganges. Flying over the book like a kite on a sacred thread is the promise of reconciliation.

The movement and music of the writing in A Suitable Boy take time to absorb, but its unobtrusive, powerfully rational sweetness eventually compels the reader to its way of seeing. By the end, Seth arrives at a use of adjectives so glancing and internal in their suggestion that they can be fully understood only by a reader who has come the whole way with him. It is difficult to imagine a European narrative as complex and emotionally based as this told with such want of pretension or neurosis: the absence of Freud is indeed one of its distinguishing marks. Seth's seemingly egoless style allows India's confusion, and its tendency to coherence, to be seen with more light than refraction.

(Photograph omitted)