At Pizzeria Vesuvio, somewhere in South London in 2003, the difference between being a chef and being a waitress isn’t just professional. Nia and Ava, who work front of house, are British and European, white or – in Nia’s case – white-looking; Shan, Guna and Rajan in the kitchen are Sri Lankan Tamils, refugees from the civil war working illegally while they wait for their asylum applications to be processed. Behind the bar, a ‘dark portal’ leads up to the first-floor flat where the chefs ‘seal themselves off’ to sleep every night after their shifts; in emergencies, when the police come knocking, they disappear through the back door of the kitchen and clamber over the low brick wall outside, while Nia and Ava keep the officers talking in the restaurant.
The brains behind this architecture of safety is Tuli, a Sri Lankan raised in Singapore who has a degree from the LSE and uses Vesuvio as a base for experimental acts of altruism. Shan, newly arrived in London via a tortuous route across Europe (‘features and colouring of humans changing as often as the transport methods’), wants to clear the debts accrued on his journey; Tuli lends him the money and allows him to repay it in tiny increments with no interest. For Nia, who loves books but can’t afford them, there are binbags full of novels; for a local Hungarian man who comes to Tuli fearing his wife will take away his right to see their child, there is legal aid. One by one, Tuli’s employees, fascinated by his charm and the directness of his methods, start imitating them. Nia shows a Georgian waitress at the Polish café down the road, struggling with her first benefit forms, how to play the system, instructing her in Tuli’s benevolent workarounds. Shan uses a kitchen knife to threaten a developer trying to bully an elderly woman into selling her house.
Vesuvio and the streets around it are London looked at through a telephoto lens, a dense square mile finely striated by class and cultural divisions. It’s the opposite of the wide-angle London that Lalwani captured in her previous novel, The Village (2012), a city overwhelming and inscrutable in its hugeness: ‘It went on for ever, the London sky like that, with everything hidden inside it – the fear, the different needs, the shock and harm it contained, the lack of control people had over their lives.’ In You People, closeness matters: the Polish café and the Chinese grocer opposite, the talkative little boy Shan sees every morning as he leaves his estate, a reassuring ‘8.34 a.m. confluence at the lights’. Sue, the homeless woman who sleeps outside the entrance to the tube, is a constant in Nia’s journey to and from work, a stand-in, perhaps (‘she didn’t overthink it’), for the abusive mother she’s left behind in Newport. Nia gives Sue fruit salads and charity shop scarves. Shan notices Sue too, but on the day she asks him for ‘ten pence’ he’s distracted by his phone, a text from Tuli with the overwhelming news that his wife and child are still alive. Shan has things in common with Sue at this moment – he too is temporarily homeless, locked out of his flat for not paying the rent – but there’s only so much empathy to go around, and the connection is left for the reader to make.
Some of the connections made by characters in the novel are unfair. The phrase ‘you people’ is lazy shorthand, used to homogenise groups of individuals with little in common. ‘The things you people throw away!’ Tuli exclaims to Nia as they scour the bins in an affluent part of West London for discarded furniture to give to struggling families, half-mockingly erasing both her Indian heritage and her class background. When Shan is you-peopled, later in the novel, all traces of irony are gone. ‘Hospital is a fucking nightmare, I fucking waited two hours. Because of you people. That’s right – you people,’ the mother of the little boy screams when she catches him staring at her son, now ill with a tube taped to his skin. ‘Just fuck off home.’
The position of the reader in all this othering is ambiguous. Is the novel’s title an insult or an accusation of complicity? No one wants to be you-peopled, but it’s equally uncomfortable to be thought of as a you-peopler. During a police raid on the Polish café, Shan struggles with the imperative to escape through the kitchen, because fleeing will mean the acceptance of a victim identity, a you-personhood he’d rather keep at arm’s length. The other Tamil chefs wear their collective trauma as a badge of pride, but Shan can only deal with his past by dissociating: ‘He can’t say “we”, “us”, everything that would help smooth things over, he just can’t do it … He can hear himself saying “they”, “their” as though he is not part of the stream.’
Shan’s story is interwoven with Nia’s as Lalwani’s short chapters alternate between their perspectives. There are connections between their experiences. Both end up at the restaurant under Tuli’s wing after fleeing home and abandoning vulnerable family: in Shan’s case, his wife Devaki and son Karu in Jaffna, left behind in the hope that he will be able to buy them safe passage once he arrives in England (‘an ugly, incendiary petrol bomb of a memory’); for Nia, her younger sister Mira, stuck at home in Newport with their alcoholic mother and reduced to ‘doing the skips’ in order to eat, trawling the supermarket waste bins for untouched Danish pastries and bread rolls. Their stories converge at dark moments. When Nia narrowly avoids being sexually assaulted by a customer, Shan happens to be locking up the restaurant and is there to comfort her. The climax of the novel – Shan’s confrontation with the trafficking agent who has lied to him about his family’s situation to extort more money – takes place at Cardiff West services on the M4, not far from Newport, with Nia’s old childhood bedroom and Mira’s first aid skills usefully on hand.
This convergence of place and person is bold because it brings into focus the question that’s been hovering over the Shan-Nia narrative from the start: whether its two halves are really equivalent. Lalwani has raised this point herself in interviews. Is it right or useful to think about the story of a domestic runaway in parallel with that of a war refugee, a citizen of nowhere whose parents aren’t merely absent, like Nia’s, but both dead – tortured and murdered, in the case of Shan’s father, by his own government? Nia isn’t necessarily, as Guna assumes her to be, just ‘one of those white girls at the front of house … best kept at arm’s length’, but granting her a complex and traumatic past doesn’t make a balance between different kinds of suffering any easier to strike.
In the end the novel seems to suggest that its two parts aren’t equal. Shan’s chapters unfold in the present tense, in prose that has an inbuilt urgency, because the vast uncertainties in his life – the question of his own asylum, the full truth of what happened to his father, whether or not his wife and child are alive and safe – aren’t consigned to a comforting narrative past. Nia’s chapters happen in the past tense, which has the effect of placing her two steps behind the action, full of questions about things Tuli and Shan already know. At the end of the book, her hope for the future is a vision of completion, the thought of herself and her sister together and ‘both of them fully grown’. Shan’s hope is bigger and shakier, suspended in the balance, embodied in the closing image of the little boy, healthy again, on his scooter, gliding ‘through space with his right leg in the air’.
In The Village, set in an open prison community in India where a BBC film crew are shooting a documentary about the lives of the inmates, the British protagonist, Ray, notices a scooter going past with a whole family balanced on it. ‘Beautiful image,’ she thinks. ‘Nuclear family, the way they were slotted in together, that sari, the speed – gorgeous.’ Later in the novel she interviews a woman abused by her husband’s family, who describes a similar scene from her own past in a way that makes us – though not Ray – look again: ‘They went to the town, Ram Pyari and her husband, to try to live there. They had two children by then. All of them went together on his bicycle and lived on the road.’ In You People, Tuli is preoccupied by the idea that there isn’t a single ‘right’ way to see things. ‘Just because scissors are better than paper, and paper is better than rock, it does not follow that scissors are better than rock,’ he tells Shan.
In fact, as we know, if you produce a rock and I produce scissors, the rock is the one that wins – it is supposed to crush the scissors. So, this is not a status thing where you can objectively decide which item is best. Instead, it very much depends on the situation, what it is that you are up against.
Sticking by this means defending behaviour that might ‘objectively’ be thought indefensible. In retaliation for a break-in at the Chinese grocer’s, Guna not only beats up the man responsible but proceeds to ‘urinate all over’ his body. Nia is appalled, but Tuli is ready with mitigating circumstances: ‘You must realise, of course, that you are speaking from one hell of a special place. You don’t know what he’s been through.’ In the case of the Hungarian man who comes to the restaurant for advice during the breakdown of his marriage, no one is quite sure how much mitigation is too much. By his own account the man has only hit his wife ‘that once’ and regrets it; now, from one ‘mistake’, she has constructed a story about regular beatings that ‘would threaten to destroy his entire existence’. But how different is one beating from several? ‘Say he’s hit her three times, four times, but he says he won’t do it again,’ Nia suggests. ‘Does the number of times matter?’ Later in the novel the man’s wife shows up at the restaurant with a new cut beneath her eye, which Nia reports to Tuli, ‘throwing the words out at him’, as evidence of his hubris and the limitations of his method. But in his view, still, there isn’t a valid ‘alternative to trying’; not intervening at all is worse than the occasional misjudgment.
Listening to people’s stories and believing them is a benevolent impulse, Lalwani argues. But her novels are full of moments when the stories people tell about themselves and the world prove to be unreliable or open to manipulation. Framing matters. In The Village, the ‘storylines’ that the BBC crew send back to London are amped up by false-empathy techniques. Getting someone to cry on camera is easy: ‘You say something like, “That must have been so difficult,” after one response. Or, “That must have been really, really hard,” after the next. Simple stuff.’ Tuli encourages Shan to pass off the details of his father’s imprisonment and torture as part of his own history, in order to bolster his asylum application. Attached to the description of torture methods Shan compiles for his boss, Nia finds a scribbled Post-it note: ‘Is it the kind of thing you need or tell me if it is too much?’
When the police raid Vesuvio looking for a Colombian woman by the name of Luciana Martinez, no one – not even Tuli – is expecting Ava, the Spanish waitress, to end up in handcuffs. Shan, who is close to her, is appalled to learn that she is in the UK on a stolen passport, because it means the stories she’s told him about her life in Spain aren’t true: perhaps half-truths, constructed by substituting Valencia for Cartagena, the Mediterranean for the Caribbean; perhaps complete fabrications. Without them, the history of their relationship falls apart. ‘Who is he to her, after all? What are they to each other, what were they to each other?’
People lie, but their bodies don’t. In The Village, everyone is sick: the TV crew reveal an inmate’s HIV test results live on camera; Ray can’t shake off the effects of drinking the local water; even the chickens pecking outside a nearby hut seem ‘a little peaky’, their feathers sparse and their ‘eyes swollen and prominent’.
In You People, the connecting motif is blood. The sight of a pooling red stain on the pavement in Archway makes Shan think of blood in other places, and of other people at risk: ‘This is the same sky that he shares with Devaki and Karu.’ (The stain could be wine, but not to Shan, who ‘knows the look of blood on concrete’.) In a different part of London, Nia imagines the hordes of commuters around her as ‘gristly clots of hopes and dreams’. When Shan thinks of his father, it’s the single internet image of his corpse that comes to mind, the body ‘wrapped in a white sheet’, ‘patterned with a haphazard mixture of bloodstain and mud’. It takes the ‘release’ of his own blood in a Cardiff service station, ‘seeping into the white of his shirt’, to get hold of the phone number that will reconnect him to his lost family; and, in turn, the ugly spreading of his blood onto Tuli and Nia, identical ‘dark maroon clots mixed with dirt’ under their fingernails, to draw them together in a new intimacy. ‘It was what she had wanted,’ Nia realises, ‘for them to be united like this.’
Images don’t always join the dots. Shan remembers his mother’s fondness for traditional sayings rooted in a particular geography (‘In a treeless country the castor plant is a big tree’), and her conjuring of bizarre, ‘transcendent’ similes from nowhere: ‘It’s as if a cow had got you by the neck with a rope and was walking round on its back legs towing you along.’ At times, Shan recalls, her comparisons ‘had been over-enthusiastic’, ‘needed too much from the recipient’. You could say the same about some of Lalwani’s descriptions, which have a tendency either to ask too much (as when Shan’s thoughts are imagined as ‘drawn out in long, endless threat like those painted yellow lines on the road’); or to do too little with too many words: ‘He keeps his eyes open, craving the fevered salty melt that would surely come with tears.’ But many observations are magical, fresh and unsettling. Getting the news that his wife and son are alive, Shan feels ‘prised open with hope, it sits in him like a pearl in an oyster’. A description of early summer is so rich you can practically feel the hayfever: ‘Green felt summer haze, trees emanating pollen, the fertility dazzling … In those weeks the world seemed full of the same unseemly private expectation that a person has on an early date.
Similes and metaphors – even the ‘shit sandwich’ that Nia’s mother favours as a descriptor – work because they prove that an alien way of looking can allow us to see the familiar more clearly. They’re a test of perspective, like one of Tuli’s experiments: an insistence that we have no right to presume what things look like from someone else’s point of view.