Review: Western Lane (2023) by Chetna Maroo

A quiet yet breathtaking study of grief and coming of age.

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

160 Pages. Full Length Novel

a white book cover with three main graphics of a girl playing squash with a racket

“When you are on the court, in the middle of a game, in a way you are alone. That is how it’s supposed to be. You are supposed to find your own way out. You have to find the shots and make the space you need. You have to hold the T. No one can help you. No one can concentrate for you or fear losing on your behalf. But sometimes it seems the opposite is true. It seems that, on the court, you are not alone at all.

Grief is exorcised, dealt with, tackled, differently. Mourning is not a linear, uniform process. There is no handbook to circumnavigate the vast array of tumultuous feelings associated with the sudden loss of a loved one. In Hereditary (2018), grief is depicted through the Graham family after the very abrupt loss of loved one. This loss, for all intents and purposes, puts the family through the wringer. Open communication breaks down. Resentment, the precursor to blame, festers in the dark corners of their increasingly cold home. As Annie, the family matriarch says in a fit of over-toppling rage:

“She’s gone forever! And what a waste, if it could’ve maybe brought us together, or something, if you could’ve just said ‘I’m sorry’ or faced up to what happened, maybe then we could do something with this, but you can’t take responsibility for anything! So, now I can’t accept. And I can’t forgive. Because…because NOBODY admits to anything they’ve done!” Hereditary (2018) dir. by Ari Aster

Toni Collette’s bombastic, and admittedly iconic three-minute monologue is powerful and showy, encapsulating the often time frustrating nature of collective mourning. Grief is toxic, as is clearly the case in the film. It has the potential to tear a family apart.

Grief is also quiet. Western Lane (2023), which was shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, examines grief in ways that, on the surface, may seem pedestrian or mundane. That may not necessarily stick out to readers in ways as significant, or noteworthy. But, in just over 150-pages, Maroo tackles the complexities of coming to terms with such devastating loss, in manners both subdued and masterful.

Both a coming-of-age sports novel and a quiet family drama about a family grieving the loss of a mother, Western Lane skews away from more dramatic illustrations of mourning, as seen in Hereditary, and is instead interested in the ways we as human beings strive to be better for the ones we love.

At the outset of the story, eleven-year-old Gopi, through which this story is told in a first-person narration, has lost her mother. Alongside her two older sisters, Mona and Khush, she is introduced and thusly encouraged to seriously pursue the game of Squash, with coaching duties predominantly taken on by her father. Showcasing the most promise out of her three sisters, the game of Squash, thenceforth, becomes a conduit to fill the time. A binding mechanism to hold her family together and fixate on this single thing, lest they fall apart in the aftermath of this sudden loss. And yet, Gopi struggles to navigate a relationship with her father, who slowly begins to fall into an emotional abyss while simultaneously pulling away from his daughters, who are also processing their own experiences of grief, and his responsibilities to his customers as a handyman.

Mona, in what is assumed to be some form of survivor’s guilt, takes on a maternal role to her sisters, making breakfast and tea every morning while spending most of her paychecks paying for Gopi’s Squash equipment. And while everyone is presumably asleep, Khush spends hours in the middle of the night in frigid temperatures, whispering platitudes to their mother out on the balcony, unaware of her sisters’ increasing worry of her fragile psychological state.

Maroo’s ability to voice narration through adolescent Gopi, illustrating both her fixation and eventual dedication to Squash, while simultaneously navigating a loss of innocence through her grief, is subtle. The displays of mourning, seen in members of Gopi’s family, both immediate and extended, are moving on levels that I was not expecting for such a small yet impactful book. In particular, Maroo’s portrayal of grief through Gopi’s father comes off as perhaps the most resonant in the cast, his grief one of textbook depression, yet still incredibly heartbreaking all the more. This is not a showy novel. It is a work of quiet strength; of family and dedication; of discipline and perseverance; of sacrifice; of the heralding of rapidly brought on maturation amidst the loss of a childlike whimsy and ignorance. Western Lane is a novel that I was not expecting to like as much as I did, with a cast of characters that I was not expecting to feel so deeply for. For lovers of moving, subtle, honest, tender illustrations of the human spirit – especially amidst unimaginable loss – I implore you to try this one. You may find something to appreciate.

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