Gifted, By Nikita Lalwani

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The Independent Culture

Rumi Vasi is a maths prodigy. She passes her O-level in the subject at 11, her A-level at 14, and is studying at Oxford by the age of 15. Her father, a university mathematics professor himself, pushes her through the necessary training with a sternness and intensity that recalls James Mill's education of the young John Stuart. Her mother, meanwhile, pressures her to be a good Hindu girl, while denying that Indians produce babies through sexual intercourse (only white people do that).

During all this, Rumi grows cleverer, shyer, prouder, unhappier, more rebellious. She develops an addiction to eating cumin seeds; at one point she is so lonely that she dials 999 just to hear a human voice.

The over-arching theme of this first novel by Nikita Lalwani, who was born in India but raised in Wales, is about families and what they do to each other. Lalwani wrings both pathos and comedy out of the power struggles conducted by people who love one other. The three central characters are vividly real – solid, flawed, appealing, despicable, admirable, pitiable, clever, foolish. One turns the pages not so much for the plot as to become better acquainted with these people – and to savour the well-crafted, literary prose.

Lalwani has a nice line in unexpected but natural similes: a memory is compared to the tang of liquorice, a Welsh accent to a compressed spring. She has a vivid sense of place, conjuring Cardiff, India and Oxford all to life as if by magic. She details the small daily trials, triumphs and humiliations of life with a warm heart and a cool eye; and she conveys the thought processes of a child and an adolescent with startling faithfulness.

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