Sanjena Sathian's debut novel, “Gold Diggers,” is full of voice. Neil — Neeraj when his parents are mad — Narayan's voice to be exact, telling the defining stories of his life from a hazy point in the future that is, at first, only hinted at. His rollicking, at times painful, and ultimately intensely satisfying tale begins when he's a teenager living in Hammond Creek, Ga. with his parents and older sister. He considers his existence to have been shaped by his parents' ambitions for him, but now that he's in high school, he's got a few ambitions of his own. Mostly, these involve girls, fitting in, and growing taller — the usual teenage boy stuff.
The first half of the novel is concerned with Neil's adolescence, and in particular his relationship with the mercurial Anita, his neighbor and childhood friend who's been changing on him, which he doesn't appreciate. She's suddenly hanging out with the popular set, and soon gets into a fancy private school. Nothing very suspicious about that, but Neil's crush on her is apparent in the attention he pays her, even if he doesn't state it so baldly, and makes him believe that there's something suspicious in the ways she's changing.
Neil is the son of Indian immigrants to the United States and his predicament is surely recognizable to many first-generation Americans. He's caught between a rock and a hard place; between parents who love him deeply even as they load him up with pressure and expectations, and a country and culture that he's supposed to be able to succeed in (see: the damaging myth of the model minority) but that still belittles him, emasculates him, and moves him to the edges of its narrative if it lets him in at all.
Early in the novel, Neil tells us: "I wished everyone would give up on me. Their gazes were too forceful, their hopes for me too enormous. For it felt, back in Hammond Creek, that it wasn't our job just to grow up, but to grow up in such a way that made sense of our parents' choice to leave behind all they knew, to cross the oceans. I couldn't bear to be the only one among them — Prachi, Manu, Anita — who failed to achieve anything, who ultimately became nobody at all."
So when Neil discovers that Anita and her mother, Anjali, have been brewing a secret alchemical concoction using stolen gold and ambition to help Anita succeed, he quite understandably wants in, consequences be damned.
One of the wonderful things about Sathian's writing is how imperfect she allows Neil to be: he can be shallow, vain, awkward, and selfish. Yet it's so easy to root for him, because he's just so terribly alive, his adult narration inhabiting his teenage self honestly, without sugarcoating. He's also wise, in his own way, able to see the cracks that form between generations, how "every emphasis on achieving a certain future came from the anxiety of simply not knowing, none of us knowing, what life here could be. There was no room to imagine multiple sorts of futures. We'd put all our brainpower toward conjuring up a single one: Harvard."
Throughout the book, Neil is quietly searching for something that will help him know, a narrative he can fit himself into in this country his parents decided he should grow up in and belong to. He finds one such narrative in the library, where a physicist named Pramesh tells Neil about a Bombayan gold digger in California during the Gold Rush. The story sparks Neil's imagination: "If I had roots in American soil ... if our collective past was more textured than I'd been led to believe, then, well, maybe there were other ways of being brown on offer."
Pramesh also introduces Neil to the concept of eternalism: "The idea, see, is that the past and present and future are all equally real. Perhaps even coexisting." This concept also lies at the heart of the book's structure, which twines historical fictions and truths and family histories into the main narrative, exemplifying how time both does and does not make a linear kind of sense, how past, present, and future's paths collide at times in unexpected ways.
Neil ends up studying history in the second half of the novel, which takes place a decade after the first. "I wrote every personal revelation I had that summer into the Bombayan," Neil tells us, "braiding my small history with his Big History. Bit by bit, I lent him my story. Imagined that he had lives some version of what we'd been through ... For wasn't he also a gold thief?"
In history, we can find reflections of ourselves, trajectories we haven't imagined we might fit into. But history is tricky, too, in that it is most often written by those in positions of power, those with the ability to erase the existence or the importance of others. Sometimes the only way to assert a history is to write into it, read between the lines, and add a sprinkle of invention. And who is to say that isn't a kind of truth, too?
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel is “All My Mother's Lovers.”
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