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The Sly Company of People Who Care, By Rahul Bhattacharya

Guyana novel flows like a river

Rivers and waterfalls flow through the mesmerising narrative of this beguiling debut novel by Indian journalist and cricket writer Rahul Bhattacharya. Guyana in South America, where the novel is set, is known as "the land of many waters". Eschewing a more conventional form, the plot runs as a river might, carrying the reader along its compelling flux of stories.

A 26-year-old Indian journalist decides to give up his job and travel to a country where he hopes to "escape the deadness of his life". First, he arrives in Georgetown, capital of Guyana, with its old colonial architecture of whitewashed wooden houses.

There he tries to re-establish the shaky architecture of his existence. "There was evangelical fervour at dayclean, to use the beautiful Guyanese for dawn", he writes in a typical sentence (the author spent a year living in the country). "To lie beside the cloud in the perfect dewy dayclean was something approaching bliss".

The story powerfully juxtaposes joy with horror. Nature is majestically described, and Bhattacharya skilfully sketches the interactions between humans and a bewilderingly beautiful landscape. This interaction can be at times cruel, and at times cathartic. The moment the narrator glimpses a great waterfall he meets a wall of "something like an emotion", causing "a momentary reconsideration of the world".

The novel has an entertaining cast of motley characters: from the man with a "face like shattered dreams" to Fatgirl. With the delicate yet hardy Jan, the narrator embarks on a life-changing adventure into the interior and across borderlands. "Navigation is the artful handling of channels," he finds: "too much water and the vessel might be thrown off balance, too little and it might crunch against rock".

Bhattacharya displays an artful handling of his own narrative. The tributaries of stories open up into the main swell of narrative. The greatest joy is in the novel's unexpected twists and turns, so the reader shares the narrator's wonder at the flash of toucan, the sudden glint of a river, or a floating blue butterfly. The author sheds great light into this little-known corner of the planet, as well as forcing us into a "reconsideration of the world" and of the delicate ecosystem which makes the whole thing hang together.

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