Torn between a toy boy and a co-ordinated pouffe

Chris Savage King applauds a funny, sharp but heart-warming novel that takes three girls on a whistle-stop tour through relationships, careers and families
Click to follow

Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee by Meera Syal (Doubleday, £12.99, 332pp)

Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee by Meera Syal (Doubleday, £12.99, 332pp)

MEERA SYAL'S new novel opens with a delightfully magical and doughtily realist scene. A group of passers-by in East London stare with astonishment as a man charges down the road on a white horse in the snow, dressed in a turban, covered in tinsel and heading for his wedding. Deepak, a successful businessman, is tired of a love life that consists of "snappy witty women with low-fat bodies and high-maintenance demands". Offered a nice Punjabi girl on a plate, he seizes the opportunity of being saved and opting for a traditional life.

He and Chila's wedding scene is picture-book happy and also deeply ominous: "A perfect day, because rituals had been observed, old footsteps retraced, threads running unbroken, families joined, futures secured". Perfect, except for the fact that we and the characters live in modern times, where certainty about anything has ceased to exist.

Two sceptical guests at the wedding are Chila's childhood friends. Sunita, a clever law student who gave it all up for marriage and babies, now works in the local Citizens' Advice Bureau - "cleaning up after white trash", in Tania's unforgiving job description. Tania, meanwhile, is a media bunny on the make - a Soho exotic who can't observe or experience anything without playing it through her head as potential documentary material. The plot reaches a crisis when Tania turns the marriages of Chila and Sunita into a TV programme, and the women see the cracks and flaws in their private lives exposed to heartless scrutiny.

Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee works successfully on a couple of levels. Its jaunty format - three women, textbook choices - could easily translate into a Take Three Girls style series featuring British Asians. As a comedienne, Meera Syal is merciless on her characters: Tania's endemic ruthlessness, Chila's "native" simplicity and Sunita's physical and intellectual degeneration once she has opted for marriage and kids.

Syal is funny and sharp about contemporary rites of passage: Sunita's flirtation with Doc Martens and black-leggings feminism when a student, and the meat and bones of Tania's career: "All those moments where she had sat tight-lipped and buttocks clenched as Rupert or Donald or Angus nibbled on ciabatta and explained to her what it meant to be Asian and British, at least for the purposes of television". Chila seduces her husband by communing with mink coats in a West End store, in a scene that is a riot of Bollywood sensuality and borderline grotesque. She then makes a home full of glass animals, frou-frou frills and co-ordinated pouffes.

Wit and pain can be close bedfellows, and Meera Syal knows when to lay off the gags and get real. When in conflict, her women characters are allowed their moments of gravitas, and moments of deep feeling and revelation.

Tania is successful but lonely, Sunita is supposedly fulfilled as a woman, but at the level of her daily needs is "being starved, slowly, to nothing". Chila makes her long-overdue transition from girlchild to woman when she has a baby, in her ideal husband's absence, aided by Sunita.

The novel is a whistle-stop tour of contemporary phenomena taking in transcultural counselling, "I Will Survive", toy boys, The Buzz Bar - and a good aria on the the importance of retail therapy. At another level, it tackles the troubled business of human relationships and does not pretend to come up with solutions.

The marriages and affairs highlighted in the novel do not represent any answer for the women, but are all the more poignant and touching because they all do have their moments of joy and bliss.

This is a genuinely heart-warming novel, both feminist and all-embracing. It covers a significant slice of social history but is also a really good read.