The Wonder House

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 September, 2005, 12:00am

The Wonder House

by Justine Hardy

Atlantic Books, $188

Anton Chekhov devised a literary technique known as Chekhov's Gun. It's a fictional element that's introduced early and 'pays off' later. Justine Hardy's debut novel opens with a Chekhov's Gun: an intriguing prologue that casts a shadow over the three residents of the Wonder House, a houseboat moored on Nagin Lake in Srinagar.

Suriya is mute and shrouded in some terrible past that taints her daughter, Lila, as well. Together they take care of Gracie Singh, a cantankerous Yorkshire woman who's been living on the boat since her Indian husband's death two decades earlier. In that time, Gracie has witnessed the valley transform. Masood Abdullah, the boat's landlord, has jettisoned his jean-clad, flirtatious self for a family patriarch who 'wears his beard long and his morals high'.

Few contemporary novelists have deployed Kashmir, one of the original crucibles of Islamic extremists, as a setting for fiction and The Wonder House is important for this reason. Hardy's affection for the land she has reported on as a journalist since 1990 is evident. She convincingly evokes the ancient rhythms of Kashmiri life in the besieged valley of today. The same valley where Muslim peasants grow saffron that graces the Hindu foreheads as sacred tika also bears mute witness to the daily crossfire between a predominantly Hindu army and Muslim insurgents.

Confined in this sectarian hothouse is an adolescent Irfan, Masood's nephew. Smitten by Lila, yet seduced by Jehadi rhetoric, he crosses the border to train as a militant. Soon after, Hal Copeland, an English journalist, arrives to report on the conflict. His resemblance to Gracie's long-dead son gets him an invitation to the Wonder House, where he promptly falls for Lila.

Kashmir is an explosive backdrop and Hardy paints the battleground well. Irfan, the pubescent boy in a repressive world, seeking release by becoming a soldier of Allah; Masood, who frequently douses his desire for whisky with the wet rag of Islamic piety; the soldiers who beat women's breasts to force confessions from their husbands.

It's in plotting the storyline that Hardy falls short. She dwells so long on delineating Gracie's crusty character, Masood's internal conflicts and Hal's insipid wooing of Lila that the climax is jerry-built. The resolution of loose threads is hastily dispensed with - in the last page but one Hardy tells us why Gracie named the boat the Wonder House. Chekhov's loaded gun finally gets fired in the last page, the epilogue - by which time the intrigue that peppered the novel seems like so much hokey.

Hal, as investigative journalist, is entirely unconvincing - for one thing, he never gets around to conducting the interview with Gracie that brought him to Srinagar in the first place. Why would Lila, clearly a strong, resilient woman, fall for this passive stranger? Even Gracie, married to a Hindu prince and witness to the Partition of India, has no perspective to provide on what is essentially a Hindu-Muslim conflict.

Kashmir's chinar trees turn a splendid russet in autumn - when the Persian invaders first beheld them, they exclaimed, 'What a fire!' The Wonder House has all the ingredients for combustion, yet stops short of enflaming the reader.