It isn’t hard to find a coming-of-age novel these days. Indeed it never really has been - there are probably many on your bookshelf at home. What Kunzru’s first novel The Impressionist does, however, which has not been really achieved before, is to set out this theme under the guise of an epic novel.
Written episodically, the narrative tells the story of the half-Indian, half-British Pran Nath, conceived after a one night stand in a cave. The first few sections of the book see the young Pan trying to understand his seemingly disingenuous upbringing, being rejected by his father and ostracised by members of his local community. In the latter half of the novel Pran journeys to England to study at Oxford. It is here he is able to find himself.
The normal adolescent feelings of estrangement and confusion are amplified by the fact that Pran is not completely accepted wherever he goes. In India, he is too rich to be walking along the slums, while Britain is far too pompous compared to his humble beginnings. A particularly funny episode involves a preview reading of a new book by an up-and-coming poet. The company exemplifies high English society at the time, and Pran is able to see right through the falseness of this society. The poetry being read is clunking and affected; Kunzru captures the absurdity of the situation with style.
The main narrative of the novel focusses on growing up, but the episodic nature of the telling allows for Kunzru to explore notions of identity. Each section is titled by the various different personas which Pran inhabits throughout the course of his journey to adulthood. After seeing the death of a young Englishman, Jonathan Bridgeman, in India, he takes on the young man’s name and reputation on his entry into the UK. Pran can still not shake off who he really is, not matter how many soirees and seminars he attends. Kunzru suggests that it is easy to change our outward persona, but that we can never change who we are fundamentally. Nevertheless, although this is often seen as a negative notion, Jonathan is actually able to understand who he is and want to be through his apparent deception.
Ideas of colonialism are approached throughout, but never smother the narrative and character development. Instead they offer a device that neatly frames the story. We begin in a wild landscape and end in one. Birth and death occurs in each, and it takes Pran’s journey into the wilderness for him to understand who he really is. It is this final epiphany which makes The Impressionist a coming of age novel and not a colonial one.
Kunzru’s style can at times be cliched, but is on the whole poetic and beautifully simple. The language develops as the protagonist does, sometimes using high rhetoric and elsewhere showing stark reality through blunt phrases. It is Kunzru’s wit, however, that is most engaging, and makes The Impressionist a delight to read. Another coming-of-age novel may seem a bit much, but this one is more than justified.