You People is about what it’s like to live “inside and outside the world at once”. The “world” here is London — the destination of disparate characters fleeing danger and/or seeking a different future. More specifically, Lalwani focuses on an unusual Italian restaurant in a believably humdrum south London. At the Vesuvio, exiled Sri Lankan Tamils make the pizzas and owner Tuli offers a “safe house” for all comers. Along with undocumented migrants locked out of the formal economy, one of his charges is Nia. Our narrator is fleeing a different kind of danger: an abusive, addicted mother.
In the kitchen, there’s Shan, who fled the Sri Lankan civil war after his father was murdered. “Remember your new name at all times,” he tells himself, “don’t be stupid and make actual friends… Think of it as a hunger fast, a devotional marathon, a computer game in which you have only one life.” Then there’s Nia, an Indian-Welsh waitress who escaped her abusive mother and dropped out of Oxford. She has never met her Indian father, and is mistaken for an Italian “with her permanent bisque tan and dark hair”. You People is a hothouse of secrets and dreams.
Shan, Tuli and Nia are intriguing, delightful, complex characters who lead us around a maze of political and philosophical ideas and questions while keeping us on the edge of our seats as the race to save Shan’s family gathers pace.
Best of all, Lalwani takes the radical (although it shouldn’t be) step of not having Nia falling in love, fancying or having sex with anyone else in the book. A female lead who isn’t defined by a romantic story arc? Yes please. Lalwani’s serious, ravishing way of writing about the secret life of Britain is just what we need.
Lalwani is a writer who understands people, and it shines through in her descriptions; one man, involved in human trafficking, has “a faux deference, and a light familiarity, like a family accountant”. Not all of the writing is this good; Lalwani can overcook her prose, as with Nia’s “firm, swollen, erotic curves” or “the gloaming void” of a room. Nevertheless, this is a moving, authentic, humane novel which raises fundamental questions about what it means to be kind in an unkind world, and it will stay with me for a long time.