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Sunday, December 4, 2022

Seeking Asylum in a London Pizzeria

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By Nikita Lalwani

The London pizzeria in Nikita Lalwani’s third novel feels comfortingly familiar, with its house wine and tiramisù, watercolor scenes and lacy fans. Yet “You People” quickly moves into less cozy places behind the kitchen door. Shan and Nia are employees who have ended up, separately, at Pizzeria Vesuvio by 2003, both grappling with loss and forcing themselves to begin again. The restaurant and its owner, the enigmatic and generous Tuli, become the fulcrum of their new lives, and of this ambitious if flawed novel.

Shan is a Tamil refugee who’s recently fled government persecution in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. Like many of his co-workers he is undocumented, a geologist in training grieving the murder of his pro-opposition journalist father. His wife and child have disappeared back home, and Tuli has vowed to help him find out if they are still alive.

Nia is a 19-year-old waitress who, like Lalwani, is from Wales and has roots in India. She has recently failed out of Oxford, where she escaped after living in a council flat with her alcoholic mother.

In chapters alternating between these two perspectives, Shan’s and Nia’s lives intersect through their boss, a Sri Lankan by way of Singapore who seems to devote himself to helping London’s poor “illegal” community — a sprawling cast that includes sharply drawn characters like a tight-lipped, Bolaño-esque waitress from Spain and a loquacious cook also from Sri Lanka — even as he tracks their debts to him in a binder. Shan and Nia praise Tuli’s kindness and they wonder how he funds his largess.

Lalwani’s concern is the philosophical and moral questions surrounding migration: What is the obligation of those who are “legal,” like Tuli and Nia, to those who are not? And how does it feel for undocumented immigrants like Shan to proffer their life stories again and again, in exchange for mercy — or, in the official terminology, asylum?

These questions are not new, which would have been fine had Lalwani explored them more deeply. Choosing to focus on just one story line instead of many would have delivered a leaner, finer book. As it is “You People” satisfies only an appetite for “the million stories” unfolding in London at any given moment, a copiousness from which the author, like Nia, seems to derive her energy.

Still, there are interesting dynamics at play in this unnamed hodgepodge neighborhood in southwest London, with its Chinese store and “Polish greasy spoon.” The characters question one another’s narratives as well as their own: Shan observes that his “real, true story is dismembered by anxiety, it is always a little different when he tells it.” To make his origin story sympathetic for Tuli, he has emphasized violence at the expense of “texture,” of memory. “He has omitted the seeni sambol from his life,” he thinks. “The really tasty stuff, the sour-sweet spice.” Violence, twice over.

Also welcome are the characters’ fresh views of gentrifiers. Fleeing the restaurant during a nearby immigration raid, Shan finds himself in the middle of a farmer’s market. “Cheese, potted jams, breads and pickles,” Lalwani writes, “customers are hovering over these goods as though they are precious stones.” Of course, the gazes go both ways, and less subtle is the novel’s depiction of Londoners’ xenophobia.

Inside the restaurant, differences are softened as if by candlelight. There are kindhearted regulars, wilted carnations, slabs of garlic bread, a teddy bear Tuli makes dance for his staff. These details of Lalwani’s created reality are more convincing than the overwrought descriptions of the characters’ inner lives (Nia’s “glutinous slivers of tears” are “like the tracks from a snail”; Shan’s waiting “has quickly become like a cling wrap over his daily life”).

From its slow beginnings the novel shakes itself off and grows restless in the final third, when the characters are stirred out of their inaction. “Whatever it takes,” Shan thinks when he finally gets news of his family. Compared with the pizzeria, which tells us something new about the bonds that can form amid crisis and dislocation, this pivot to thriller mode felt jarring.

Late in the novel, after immigration officers take one employee away, Nia imagines that “only something as dramatic as a flock of birds, let loose into the quiet of the restaurant, could dispel the thick cogitating darkness that hung over them all.” One wishes Lalwani had stuck to scenes like this one, which she conjures so well.

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