On page one, it’s raining on the day that Dave (short for Davinder) goes to pick up his visa, so the third-person narrator tells us that “for him that afternoon, the rain became an obvious symbol of regeneration, of rebirth”. Is Dave always so preoccupied with the “symbolism” in the quotidian details of his life, one wonders. But perhaps he is: later, in America, when a woman dying of cancer pulls him onto a dance floor, “Victoria became a sudden assertion of life”. Peacocks perched on the wall of his family’s old village fort are “a symbol of its final absorption into the rural landscape”. (Never mind that the very next sentence mentions that the servant quarters now have television antennae and modern amenities.) When Dave gets a postcard from two friends, it isn’t merely a postcard, it’s also a confirmation “that the first movement in the performance was coming to an end, that lives around him were changing” (italics mine).
At other times we are pelted with observations about (among many other things) the nature of officialdom in India, the various types of national holidays, government-school education, the parent-child relationship in conservative families, and the differences between Punjabi and south Indian women. But these aren’t fluidly integrated into the plot – they are presented as discrete chunks of information, as if the narrator, suddenly bored with Dave, had begun conducting a private tutorial on the side.
Tucked into all this is a red herring: the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the anti-Sikh riots, which provides a marketing peg for the book, but which only makes up a fragment of the plot and doesn’t seem crucial to Dave’s story anyway; his unsettled state owes more to individual character than to external events. But the external events do provide a pretext for banal truisms like “No matter how fond one might get to be of an alien land, it could never be home” and musings such as “Was there really sufficient reason for so much anger in the world, reason for so much disapproval, disagreement, conflict and violence?”
In an age when mid-list books are assembly-produced with little or no editorial guidance, one has to sympathise with an inexperienced novelist writing a semi-autobiographical story – such writers need a good, firm editor more than most others do. Consider just this one sentence: “Names in the Sikh community are not gender-specific, and Dave often wondered how that came to be.” Simply modifying this to “Dave often wondered why names in the Sikh community weren’t gender-specific” would have not only made the sentence crisper but also incorporated the thought more casually into the narrative, instead of first giving us a piece of information and then Dave’s reaction to it. This might seem like nit-picking, but there are dozens of such examples scattered through the book, and their cumulative effect is to make No Way Home clunky and pedantic.
Or take this chat between Dave and a lady named Lalitha:
“You’re not a very happy person, are you?” she asked. Dave was surprised.What was the need for the “Dave ventured” when we already have the “he said” in the previous line? Couldn’t the two lines be combined? Even if it was the author’s intention to provide a meaningful pause – a beat of silence – between Dave’s reply and the question he subsequently asks, surely a “he ventured” would have sufficed (though I don't much care for the use of the word "ventured" in this context anyway - it's just as awkward as the frequent use of "opined" by Indian journalists in interviews and profiles). Again, there are many stilted passages of this sort.
“I’m perfectly content,” he said.
“And you?” Dave ventured. “Are you happy?”
No Way Home does have a couple of things going for it. When Dave first comes to America, the writing has a gentle, tentative quality that mirrors his own wide-eyed first impressions of the place, and the culture shock isn’t presented loudly or dramatically – instead, one gets the sense that he is inwardly recoiling at certain things while maintaining his outward poise (and continuing to be popular among his peers). I also thought it interesting – in theory at least – that Dave’s story, which has all the signs of being a coming-of-age tale, eventually turns out to be an account of a man permanently stultified by internal forces that are never made completely clear. Unfortunately the promise shown here is laid to waste by a dreary narrative that doesn’t follow the “show, don’t tell” principle. This book is a case of “tell, tell, tell” all the way.