South Haven by Hirsh Sawhney
Reviewed by Sudha Balagopal
Hirsh Sawhney’s debut novel, South Haven (Akashic Books), is a 2016 Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick.
It begins with ten-year-old Siddharth Arora losing his mother in a tragic car accident. While the story is one of deep loss, despair, and bewilderment, Sawhney tells the Arora family’s tale without being overly maudlin. Understandably, Mohan Lal, the father, Arjun, the older brother and Siddharth are thrown into a vortex of sorrow and ensuing confusion. Readers will come to love South Haven’s Siddharth and to care for this motherless boy in an immigrant family.
The Aroras are crippled by their loss and shaken by the unexpected turn life has taken. Told from the point of view of Siddharth, the story illustrates the many changes in his young existence. These begin when he is enrolled in a new school that offers after-school care. There, he gets bullied and finds himself friendless except for one girl, Sharon Nagorski, an outsider herself.
At first, Arjun, the smart older brother, takes on the role of the responsible adult as the father sinks into his grief. Mohan Lal, a professor at a local college, is superficially benevolent and loving toward Siddharth, but struggling to come to terms with his wife’s loss He withdraws from his family, his friends, and his work. He seeks solace in drink, and sometimes sleep, resulting in what might be best described as neglect toward Siddharth. Soon, Arjun leaves to attend college in Michigan, so far away that, “Siddharth was sobbing on the endless car ride home from Michigan.” (p. 41)
To complicate matters, Mohan Lal befriends Ms. Farber, a single mother and the psychologist at Siddharth’s school. Siddharth misses his mother with a deep, aching void in his heart, and is not happy with this development. The one positive thing about his father’s new relationship is that he finds a friend in Marc, her son.
Sawhney proves himself a master at describing the psychological detritus. He shows us how Mohan Lal is plagued by anger, a deep restless emotion that unleashes itself at his workplace and finds a home in Hindu fundamentalism. The author’s description of Siddharth’s need to connect with his older brother, his need to belong, and his dislike of Ms. Farber, all rings true.
“He couldn’t believe the man had already forgotten about his dead wife. Dead, dead – when you’re dead, you’re dead. Siddharth’s brain burned with these words. He could feel a big, heavy sob building in his body. Dead was dead. You weren’t reincarnated, and you didn’t go to heaven. Arjun had pretty much said the same thing. Siddharth imagined the flames licking at his mother’s body. They had cremated her and left him with nothing – not even a strand of hair or a gravestone where he could say hello.” (p. 140)
Sawhney’s writes in lucid prose about a cast of flawed characters: Mohan Lal with his drinking, his bouts of wrath and his bungling quest for something he cannot articulate; Arjun’s need to excel, his worry about the family’s finances, and his, perhaps defiant, relationship with a Muslim girl; Siddharth’s growth from an innocent ten-year-old into a thirteen-year-old exposed to violence, sex and drugs, and still another tragedy. All these characters are credible. Despite the contentious behavior there is an underlying tenderness to the family dynamic. This lends South Haven a density that makes it more than a simple coming-of-age novel.
Despite Siddharth’s experiments with alcohol and secret forays into porn, he is still lovable in his need to be loved, to keep his father from ‘straying’ toward Ms. Farber, and in his adulation for his older brother. However, the same cannot be said of other characters. The father’s rough edges and clumsy gestures grate on the reader. Arjun is physically absent, away at college, and therefore emotionally remote. Ms. Farber says all the right things and tries hard; yet, she has an awkwardness to her that makes her difficult to love.
The reader may wonder how things would have turned out if Siddharth’s mother were alive. Would the same peer group and temptations have enticed him? How would it have been if the family unit had functioned differently with no Marc or Ms. Farber in the picture? Aren’t these issues faced by all children of immigrant parents thrown into a world so different from their own?
The richness of this story comes from the textured layers. There is the story of Siddharth from the age of ten until the age of thirteen and the accompanying trials and tribulations strewn in his path, made all the more complicated with his mother gone. Sawhney shows us how they all these characters emerge from their past traumas and take tentative, but positive steps toward their future.
The book is ambitious in trying to cover not just the immediate issues of the Indian immigrant family, but broader issues like bullying, the lure of sex, drugs, and the problems with education. It also takes on international issues by addressing the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and Mohan Lal’s attraction to it.
The ending feels a little rushed, but complete. Life does move on. What else can Siddharth hope for, but to look ahead? Sawhney’s book is a good read. The author, who was the editor of Delhi Noir and lives in New Haven, Connecticut, has written a book that will be meaningful to Indian immigrants who can relate to many of the issues addressed in it.
Sudha Balagopal‘s fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin, Tishman Review, Superstition Review and Gravel Magazine among other journals. She is the author of two short story collections: Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. Her debut novel, A New Dawn, will be released in November 2016.