Robyn's Reviews > The Impressionist

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru
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's review
Aug 11, 2011

An incredibly detailed, background-heavy tale about a mixed-race boy born in India at the turn of the 20th century, “The Impressionist” is Hari Kunzru’s reverse take on Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”. Pran Nath’s privileged life is abruptly brought to an end when a servant reveals his true origins; his father, far from the affluent Indian money-lender who has brought him up, was in fact a deceased English traveller whose path crossed that of Pran’s long-dead mother some 15 years previously. Cast unceremoniously into the street, Pran is forced to survive in any way he can, whilst attempting to discover who he is and where he rightfully belongs.

Covering a wide range of locations, from Agra to London, Bombay to the British countryside, “The Impressionist” is a deliciously rich taste of early 20th century life and all the contradictions it embodied. Pran swings from high-caste Indian boy, through street dweller to middle-class Englishman, each incarnation no more comfortable or less wrought with difficulties than the last. With remarkable ease, one story blends into the next, Pran’s transformations unquestionably believable. Kunzru’s talent is at its most effective when describing the new surroundings in which Pran finds himself, as well as managing to inspire sympathy and understanding in the reader for a boy who is not at all likeable, superficially or otherwise.

Some points are rammed home with somewhat less subtlety than is perhaps intended; those who are inflicted with the disease named religion come off rather badly, as does anyone in a position of power. In fact, most of the characters are essentially unpleasant, or at least enormously flawed, although Kunrzru does his best to get us on their sides with a plethora of background information for certain cherry-picked individuals. It is these sub-plots which make up the real heart of the novel.

Skin colour is, of course, vital to the piece, but in itself doesn’t form the crux of the story, with Kunzru providing representatives of the good, the bad and the ugly from every race throughout Pran’s meandering journey. Instead, it is the more abstract concept of fitting in, placement and acceptability which drives the story forwards. Even this, though explored to its furthest regions, is never quite brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Some characters, like Paul Goertler the Jew, are voluntary outsiders; others find themselves deliberately shunned or accidentally sidelined due to circumstance or accident. Despite this, the reader still wonders: is it necessary for everybody to be an impressionist in order to find their place in society? Or is this inescapably purgatorial existence solely the lot of Pran and his fellow mixed-race orphans?

“The Impressionist” gives us a fascinating insight into the colour-coded world of the first quarter of the 20th century. It details the understandably fraught relationship between England and India, and the romanticised attitudes held towards each other from both sides. Kunzru's simultaneous love and exasperation for both India and Britain is tangible and it is this passion and honesty which lays such a solid foundation for what is ultimately a collection of individual yet well-linked, beautifully detailed stories.
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