Letters of complaint to the (fictional) Museum of Asian Art in Washington fall into three categories: "I'm sorry you were offended by the a) big bare breasts; b) intercourse (between consenting, multi-armed gods, eager lovers or men preying on camels); c) graphic portrayals of bloody mayhem, including severed heads depicted either singly or strung together as necklace or belt." Promise Whitaker, Acting Director of the museum, will never get round to answering these complaints. They sit on her desk and multiply, labelled, like everything else on its Himalayan surface, URGENT!
Promise, a woman so diminutive that a resentful colleague describes her as little more than a knick-knack, is the magnificent heroine of this highly original, extremely funny and surprisingly moving novel. Her speciality is the study of 16th-century illustrations of a 13th-century manuscript but her sudden promotion leaves her with little time for peaceful research, especially when the authorities, prompted by a nervously xenophobic "patriotism", declare that the museum's collection is to be disbanded and the place transformed into a fast-food restaurant, with oriental overtones. The first she knows of this disastrous decision is the arrival of a man from "Wok On".
The book begins with Promise's grand opening salvo in the battle to retain the museum. There is to be a public presentation of an ancient and beautiful porcelain bowl, a symbol of all that is fine in careful conservation. As you've guessed, it is dropped and comprehensively smashed. Disastrous as this incident is, Promise is comforted by echoes of a famous story: a sage, drinking from a beautiful glass, advised his followers not to become too attached to such an object, for all things are transitory and one day it would break. To him, indeed, it was already broken.
Such phlegmatic stoicism contrasts sharply with the untrammelled mayhem of Promise's home life. In her crumbling house lurks an affectionate and volatile husband, a dangerously depressed child-minder, a luridly incontinent puppy and two unpredictable children: Felix, who urgently needs a pink bike for his sixth birthday (and why shouldn't pink be his favourite colour?) and Lydia, whose current favourite riddle is "What sits on the bottom of the ocean and shakes?" As Promise faces up to a third, decidedly inconvenient pregnancy, the answer is all too close to home. It is "a nervous wreck".
This is a sharply perceptive novel, beautifully written, richly textured and awash with memorable, strongly drawn characters. The plot gathers momentum through bold shifts of time and place, drawing in embezzlement, gay flirtation, a violent kidnapping and an eyewateringly real childbirth. It culminates in the serene and seraphic visitation of the Dalai Lama. Luckily, His Holiness thoroughly enjoys this irreverent Buddhist joke (as, one day, will Lydia): What did the Dalai Lama say to the hot-dog vendor? "Make me one with everything."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies