In October, homelessness charities reported a sharp increase in the number of young people sleeping rough in London. Although written before the pandemic, Should We Fall Behind, Sharon Duggal’s measured, intensely humane second novel about the “invisible” among us, amplifies the questions Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus – about the meaning of community, and what constitutes a home.
In an unnamed city “down south”, Jimmy Noone, a northerner in his early 20s who has fled a difficult family situation, warily navigates the streets. When he encounters the younger, more vulnerable Betwa, his brotherly instinct to protect her overrides a growing attraction, but then Betwa disappears. Jimmy’s search for her leads him to the area where she grew up, home to a large immigrant community. Duggal eases into the lives lived in this locality with compassion and wisdom, allowing generous room to several narrators and their intergenerational stories of love and loss.
Duggal allows generous room to several narrators and their intergenerational stories of ordinary love and loss
Single mother Ebele, traumatised from childhood abuse, is raising her six-year-old daughter Tuli in a shabby flat overlooking a large garden. Stressed and overworked, she initially ignores Tuli’s bright chatter about the “Storyman” who has come to live in an abandoned car on the other side of the garden wall. Their grouchy Cypriot landlord, Nikos, a wonderful character study in bitterness and desperation, is also Ebele’s hated employer at the failing local furniture shop.
Elderly neighbour Rayya watches over her bed-bound husband, Satish, who has advanced Parkinson’s, reading aloud to him from VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas as the autumn afternoons close in: “Somehow, she noticed, the world had changed colour without ceremony and where only yesterday it seemed everything was cloaked in velvet green, now leaves were amber and brittle, swirling in the autumn breeze.” Rattling around in their big, lonely house, she reflects on the couple’s first meeting in the back streets of Delhi, their quietly happy marriage, and the longed-for children who never arrived.
Like Duggal’s first book, the The Handsworth Times, which traced the 1981 riots across Thatcher’s Britain, Should We Fall Behind reaches a dramatic culmination of sorts, although this is not its most important feature. At its heart the novel is a spacious, melancholy work, its sorrowful yet hopeful storylines an elegy to time’s passing.
• Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal is published by Bluemoose.