Helium, by Jaspreet Singh, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99, 307 pages
This bold, moving novel explores the legacy of the anti-Sikh riots that swept India after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. The narrator is Raj, a student who witnesses the murder of his Sikh mentor, Mohan Singh, during the violence.
Years later, after becoming an academic in America, Raj seeks out Mohan’s widow, who works in a colonial-era archive in the Himalayas. He persuades her to tell her husband’s story and to help bring the perpetrators to justice – only later to discover that his own father was complicit in the pogrom.
Jaspreet Singh emulates WG Sebald in his deployment of captionless photographs and a digressive style, but harnesses these techniques to his own purposes. While Raj inveighs against his compatriots for burying evidence of the killings, we suspect that such displays of anger mask his own feelings of guilt at not preventing Mohan’s death. The result is a compelling character study and a powerful meditation on historical forgetting.
Lazy Days, by Erlend Loe, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, Head of Zeus, RRP£9.99, 224 pages
At the centre of this quirky little novel is Bror Telemann, a Norwegian theatre director. Bror is on holiday in Germany with his wife and children, but seems more interested in spending time inventing rococo sexual fantasies involving the TV cook Nigella Lawson. Forever excusing himself to peruse her recipe books (or “think about the theatre”, as he tells his wife) he fails to notice that he is being cuckolded by the bumptious Herr Bader.
There’s much to enjoy in Loe’s deadpan comedy, including the protagonist’s pretentious notions of art (“a scream from the bowels of the earth: Angst! Angst! Now that’s what Telemann calls theatre”), and a Fawlty Towers-ish dinner party during which Bror ignores his wife’s injunction not to mention the war to their German guests.
But for Loe to include Lawson – a real person, after all – in the detailed sexual scenarios that Bror dreams up seems somewhat ethically dubious.