Leela Patel and her family flee Kenya after her father is killed by terrorists. Her widowed mother and Leela's twin brothers move to England to live (temporarily, says her mother) with her brother and his wife. Much to Leela's sorrow, there is no room for her and arrangements are made to have her live with her father's brother and his wife (who has a mysterious "condition") in a bleak suburb of Paris.
Leela arrives at the apartment which is more like a garrison, and shyly meets her Aunty and Uncle for the first time. Uncle is brisk, but kind. Aunty is resentful of Leela's arrival, and subjects her to all the paranoia and strictures of her own life. Dirt, darkness and isolation mark Leela's days until she persuades her Aunty and Uncle to let her work in the store that they own. There, Leela discovers how her Uncle withstands his marriage to an obese, dirty and mentally unstable woman: he "entertains" one woman after the other in the storage room while Leela tends the front counter. After a terrible misunderstanding due in part to her Uncle's extracurricular activites, Leela goes out to make a delivery to a customer. She arrives home long after the store has closed, to face the horrible accusations of her aunt. She is eventually forced to explain why she left the store in the first place, and exposes her uncle's infidelity. This is the turning point of the story and virtually the only time we see Leela as a woman of action.
Leaving her relatives' home starts her on what could only be described as an odyssey. A shy, young, sheltered girl, she is thrust into a world for which she is unprepared. She loses her virginity almost immediately, becomes an au pair, then mistress, then celebrity on a cooking show. She remains emotionally destitute throughout. She believes she emits a dark, musty, feral smell which repels those she tries to attract.
I found that the metaphor of smell comes in too late and too strong in the novel. I was hooked by the beginning of the story, by Leela's tragic character which had so much potential, and by the expectation that she would redeem her life despite the odds. What transpired instead was a bleak journey that may cause a sensitive reader to lose patience.
I liked the premise very much, and the descriptions of Leela's emotional isolation were achingly poignant, but the end was much too abrupt. The revelation about her smell at the end of the book was anything but a surprise -- the reader has probably guessed it all along, and it fails to make an impact.
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