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by Sunetra Gupta
Reviewed by Andrew Barnes

So Good in Black is one of those rare books that sends you scrabbling for the author's backlist. Beautifully written, wonderfully observed and deftly executed, it is a moving examination of ageing friendships and haunted lives, set in Sunetra Gupta's home town of Calcutta.

The book opens with a group of former friends returning to Calcutta in the early 1990s to mourn the death of Damini, a feminist and political campaigner. They include Max Gate, an American travel writer; Piers O'Reilly, Max's former brother-in-law; Ela, Max's ex-lover; and Byron Mallick, Ela's guardian and the group's grey eminence. Max and Piers share an ulterior motive in returning. They have come back not just to lay Damini to rest, but also to accuse Byron of her murder. The tense confrontation causes old wounds to reopen and secrets from the former friends' lives to be spilled, and allows them to understand their previous relationships, and the subsequent unravelling of their lives, for the first time.

So Good in Black is populated with a cast of expertly observed characters. The narrative, split between the 1980s when the friends were first together and the 1990s when they reunite, focuses on Max's journey from happily married man to dissolute wanderer. His transformation is brilliantly and believably handled, and it is through him that Gupta's central themes of ageing and loss are best explored. However, the supporting cast is far from throwaway; the story of lives that have become decayed and disappointing is told using a fantastic ensemble of personalities. Byron in particular is fascinating, and his role as the group's charming, polite, manipulative and sinister puppeteer is, for me, what really sets the book apart.

Gupta's book is daring in its ambition, but it delivers. The tight focus on the small group of friends gives the narrative a claustrophobic feel, but the story still has an epic feel. Gupta addresses a diversity of themes, such as memory, loss and ageing, and blends them effortlessly with a story of murder, even throwing in a nod to the politics of the Gulf War and Indian poverty. This is a novel that merits a wide readership, and a writer I will be following more closely in the future.

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