BOOKS:Insiders on the outside looking in

A HOUSE IN PONDICHERRY by Lee Langley, Heinemann pounds 12.99
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THERE'S a kind of fiction that tries to make character and history illuminate each other, finding the bones of large conflicts in individual lives. Lee Langley's new novel shows how hard it is to do that well. Her material is almost impossibly rich: the story of Pondicherry, Tamil city on the Coromandel coast, capital of French colonial India and home of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, from the 17th century to the present. But her drifting heroine, the Mills & Boon-ishly named Oriane de l'Esprit, can't quite bear the freight; nor, at times, can her prose, whose edges tend to melt into a heat-struck wistfulness.

Oriane grows up in the early 1900s in a French hotel run by her parents, who do their best to keep her from native influences. She, of course, is drawn to "India" in the person of Mr Guruvappa, a St Paul's educated Brahmin. Their unconsummated romance mirrors the awkward encounter of East and West in the Tamil diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, confidant of the 18th-century French governor, which they translate together. After Independence Oriane joins another cross-cultural experiment, the Utopian community of Auroville. Disillusioned and sick, she retreats to her hotel and the prickly fortress of French culture. There she is eventually surprised by Charlotte, the Kentish-Town-bred daughter of a friend's brief Auroville union, looking for her father and her roots.

With Charlotte, the novel comes to life. The gauzy Pondicherry of colonial times becomes a gritty modern town, flashy with the colours of sunsets, filmi posters and political parties. Langley, who spent her childhood in India and lost her father there, seems to find a voice for her own experience of return: a mixture of fascinated longing, disappointment and disgust. The big ideas about neo-colonialism and utopias that swam portentously under the surface of the book's first half almost dissolve into the narrative. Because Charlotte is clearly an outsider, it matters less that the Indian characters she meets seem flat. Her untidy emotions make her interesting and, through her, everything she sees.

It's a pity Lee Langley took on so much, hiding a convincing smaller novel inside a grand but baggy one. For all the elaborate research that decorates its pages, her book's heart is not really in Indian history, or the problem of colonialism, but in describing a sense of loss that happens to take an Indian shape. She reminds us of those Westerners pressing their noses against the glass that separates them from some imagined mystery. Once the caves said ou-boum; now the tourists say Om. Except as landscape, Langley's India is less solid than Forster's until she enters Charlotte's particular story, letting her irritation with her own birth- place show through.