by Rajat Narula
Azalea Heights follows five families who move to a brand-new housing development to make a fresh start in their respective lives. As they familiarise themselves with each other, misunderstandings, differences, and prejudices are laid bare.
I really enjoyed Azalea Heights and struggled to put it down. It’s a little bit different; the beginning is fairly gentle albeit with some hints of conflict and intrigue among the characters’ personal journeys. The prose is considered but has a single-minded, literal quality which makes it very easy to read.
Indeed, I wondered if the writing was a touch too relaxed in the opening few chapters, but the novel is actually deceptively well-constructed. The leisurely beginning suggests a touch of interpersonal drama about to start, but then the narrative grows into a quietly powerful exploration of cultural differences, simmering religious tensions, and societal divisions which becomes completely riveting.
The five families whom the novel follow, encompass a white couple whose wife is nearly destroyed by grief, a newly-divorced Indian woman with a mixed-race son, an Iraq veteran struggling with PTSD, his wife and teenage daughter, an upbeat, hard-working restauranteur and a proud American of Pakistani descent whose son becomes radicalised by the local Mosque and whose wife retreated into herself and Islam some while back.
All of the characters are sympathetically and brilliantly depicted. Mr Narula effortlessly switches between the different cultures and backgrounds of his diverse cast. They are all convincing, authentic, and thoroughly investable.
Personally, Altaf was the standout, his conflicting loyalties and torn emotions were deftly portrayed and he was immensely likeable as well. The tension between him and his wife, Ayesha, visibly radiated from the page and, at times, was almost amusing in its awfulness.
Naina was probably my least favourite; there was an air of slight entitlement emanating from her but this is countered by the issues she faces with her Mother and also, her confession to Rohan concerning her marriage breakdown.
Each of the individuals have their demons but all invite genuine sympathy and consideration. Their stories are interesting and wholly believable. The quality of the writing and increasing tempo actually disguises what is a fairly complex branching narrative.
Each vignette of a life in Azalea Heights is separately engrossing and, shortly after three-quarters, they begin to converge together in a series of chapters that are heavy with dramatic suspense but which never stretch credibility. I also thought the conclusion was a brave move; it could have been diluted and neat but the author chose the ultimately realistic version and, consequently, it works well.
Regardless of ethnicity and belief systems, the common denominator in Azalea Heights is basically the human condition with all its frailties, flaws, and ugliness. The families in Azalea Heights are trying in successful and, not so successful ways, to manage and understand their defects, as we all are.
Azalea Heights is an intelligently structured, thought-provoking, and absorbing novel. Highly recommended.