In 1968 Babo Patel, a Gujarati boy from Madras, flies to England for further education. Babo is full of good intentions (he will steer clear of meat; he will do well academically; he will come home to his parent-approved fiancée, Falguni), but then he meets Siân, a Welsh girl with whom he immediately falls in love. Babo is forced to return to India by his horrified parents, and the couple must endure months of separation before the Patels relent, Sian moves to India, and the two are married. The Pleasure Seekers goes on to tell the story of their marriage and of their children, Mayuri and Bean.
Author Tishani Doshi is also half-Welsh and half-Gujarati. The Pleasure Seekers is a fictionalised account of her own upbringing in a “hybrid” family (it becomes clear as one reads that Doshi is Bean, the younger daughter). More importantly, it is a tribute to the author's parents who are described on the dedications page as “the original pleasure seekers”. The idea of people who both love and experience pleasure thoroughly is one that certainly deserves to be celebrated in fiction. Unfortunately, The Pleasure Seekers never quite manages to live up to this presumed goal.
While the immigrant novel and the family saga are perfectly valid forms of literature, they have both been done a number of times before, and with each new addition to either genre one finds oneself looking for reasons why this book in particular should stand out. Siân's adjustments to life in India in the earlier parts of the novel offer a potentially unusual angle on a much-worked theme, but this is a comparatively short section of the larger narrative. When it comes to Bean's immigrant experience Doshi is disappointingly ham-fisted:
At her grandparents' grave, Bean sat trying to work out how part of them were part of her, how part of this village was part of her. Because if she understood this, she thought, perhaps she'd understand where she fitted into the rest of it – into this mist and rain, these houses and cars, there people walking their dogs, leading their lives […]
[…] Why do I always feel like I'm visiting wherever I go? Why? Why? Because the sky's so high.
Nor is the Jones-Patel family's disposition towards pleasure-seeking particularly evident - the book keeps telling us this about the family, but never actually shows it.
And then there are the odd little sound effects (Doshi has described them as “chutneyfication”) that are scattered through the text. These would not be a problem were they not so overdone – to hear the process of falling in love described as “ba-ba-boom, ba-ba-boom, ba-ba-boom-boom-boom” is only mildly annoying the first time one comes across it. But then it happens again, and then again, the sound effects intruding upon the prose till they begin to feel like those jagged-edged “pow”s and “biff”s from the old Batman TV series. People's smiles are (repeatedly) “jhill mill jhill mill”, ghosts fold themselves into the corners of rooms “ka-chink ka-chink” – this one is almost improbable enough to be an authentic family saying, so I'm tempted to let it pass – and Babo and Siân have sex “sha-bing, sha-bang” until Babo's midlife crisis takes its toll on his “Mr Whatsit” (soon after we have a reference to another Whatsit being inserted into a Ms Sunshine. When two characters manage a “sympathy fuck” later on, it's difficult not to cheer).
There is also a magical grandmother. Ba, Babo's grandmother,can smell her family members from miles away (they all smell like spices) and takes a touching interest in her offspring's personal lives that has her assisting in Babo's conception. Other members of the Indian family include the mockworthy, less cosmopolitan cousins (you can tell, because they have unibrows and are fat) and Babo's kind but uncomprehending mother. India is all peacocks and lizards. It's hard, as an Indian reader, to tell whether this stereotyping extends to the Welsh parts of the novel, but when Siân wanders around “with Dylan Thomas tucked under one arm” it seems very possible.
This wouldn't be so irritating were it not that Doshi's prose is occasionally really good. The sections documenting Mayuri and Bean's childhood are gently funny and surprisingly sensuous at the same time and it's at these points that you remember that the author is an accomplished poet. It never lasts long enough. The Pleasure Seekers is clearly a very personal book, but ultimately it's not a very good one.