The Obscure Logic of the Heart

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 September, 2010, 12:00am

The Obscure Logic of the Heart
by Priya Basil Doubleday HK$169

In her second novel, Kenyan-born writer Priya Basil serves up a romance beset with religious woes and familial disasters against a backdrop of modern Britain, the United States and Africa.

Now based in Britain, Basil has quite a bit to live up to. Her first novel, Ishq and Mushq, was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize. However, The Obscure Logic of the Heart leans towards a tug-on-the-heart-strings saga, sometimes verging on soap-opera dramatics.

Primarily, this is because its central message is that we can't ignore the truth that love is at the core of human nature and always has been.

To convey this message, Basil unites the beautiful and innocent (sometimes annoyingly so) Lina with the suave Anil, both coming from different religions and backgrounds. Anil is a Sikh with no religious beliefs, while Lina is a devout Muslim.

Cue the inevitable parental clashes and throw in their vastly different life choices and a doomed yet sincerely passionate romance, a la Romeo and Juliet, emerges.

It starts with Lina, at university and living with an aunt, having always done what her family advises. Yet she can't escape Anil's confident charms and they embark on a relationship as he flits from Kenya to Britain while she eventually pursues her dream to save the world as an aid worker.

Her ruse is flimsy, however, and her family's inevitable shock causes a rupture in the relationship and with Anil's wealthy and powerful family.

Yet thanks to a solid belief by Lina's father that Allah will guide her on the proper course, she and Anil continue their affair after she secures a job with the UN in New York and Sudan, offering readers plenty of social commentary about illegal arms shipments and African aid missions along the way.

In the background, Anil is an up-and-coming architect while desperately trying to hold on to Lina as she seeks to balance the past and present.

Weaved into all this is a tale surrounding a series of letters from a woman to a man written in the 1960s. The subplot reveals he had abandoned her for religious reasons and she wrote to manage the pain of his departure, although they were never sent. Their eventual significance and connection to Basil's tale lend it deeper layers of meaning when their identities are finally revealed.

The problem in the present day is that Lina is constantly confused about whether to choose family loyalty or love. While an understandable conundrum for someone of the Islamic faith, her intrinsic victim mentality when it comes to her personal life does become frustrating for the non-faithful, albeit sometimes providing an intriguing insight into the difficulties faced by those of dual cultures.

Basil also lapses (often) into using visual descriptions unconnected to what it is describing ('Crumbs fell, like hail'). Furthermore, Lina's reaction to her discovery of the corporate activities of Anil's family could have provided a much stronger story thread, but fails to go anywhere.

Nonetheless, lovers of rollicking romances will cherish the dramatics on offer here against a backdrop of exotic locales and the sometimes tragic repercussions of religious dictates - and secrets - on personal relationships.