Susie Thomas, Hanif Kureishi: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). 240/208 pp. Index and bibliography. ISBN 1403920560 (hbk) £40.00, $65.00; ISBN 1403920575 (pbk) £12.99, $24.95
An engaging and comprehensive look at Kureishi’s oeuvre to date, Susie Thomas’s Hanif Kureishi: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism is a necessary and welcome addition to the Palgrave series. Not only does the volume point to the multicultural face of Britain as being a significant part of mainstream British literature, it also brings to light the fact that another South Asian -– along with Salman Rushdie –- has reached ‘iconic status’ in the British literary canon.
Iconic, Thomas points out, due to his immense influence on other writers of the South Asian diaspora in Britain: her list includes Ayub Khan Din, Meera Syal, Shyama Perera, Atima Srivastava and Monica Ali. Inspired by Kureishi, all of these writers are notable for ‘breaking the mold’, or defining ‘new ways of being British’. Placing emphasis on the fact that Kureishi is the first mainstream South Asian British writer to have actually been born in Britain, Thomas reaffirms Shoene’s famed characterisation of Kureishi as a writer who does not speak from the margins but the centre (p. 1).
Perhaps because Thomas believes Kureishi’s ‘work is intelligence and love combined’, she is able to make note of the key controversies surrounding it in a balanced way (p. 3). Two accusations levied against Kureishi are that he is a misogynist and that he comically stereotypes his own cultural and ethnic group. Thomas does not ‘rescue’ Kureishi from these accusations or insist that he is a native informant; rather, after nuanced presentations of both sides of each debate, she usefully leaves them open controversies—an accurate reflection of the present state of Kureishi studies. This allows readers to come to their own conclusions about issues of sexuality and ethnicity in his writing.
In a chapter entirely devoted to Kureishi’s early plays, Thomas argues that Kureishi’s ventures in fringe theatre foreground the issues that become central to his later work: race and class. While plays such as The King and Me (1980), Outskirts (1981) and Birds of Passage (1983) feature predominantly white characters, in Borderline (1981) Kureishi depicts the tensions experienced in the Asian diaspora under the political climate of Powellism. It is in this play, Thomas points out, that Kureishi really begins to explore the themes that will grip him for the next fifteen years of his career.
Issues of race and class permeate the novels and films that have made Kureishi iconic. In lengthy chapters on The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and The Black Album (1995), Thomas most notably discusses the controversy surrounding what she calls Kureishi’s depictions of ‘new forms of masculinity in a post-feminist era’ (p. 4). Furthermore, Thomas recognises that while Kureishi’s first films built his reputation significantly, they also encountered controversy. While My Beautiful Launderette garnered Kureishi an Oscar nomination for best screenplay of 1985 and Sammie and Rosie Get Laid (1988) was celebrated for its depiction of multicultural London, both films were also heavily criticised for their representation of gender, sexuality and interracial relations. Additionally, Thomas devotes an entire chapter each to Kureishi’s less discussed but equally significant films, My Son the Fanatic (1987) — discussed in terms of its controversial reception by Muslim communities in Britain — and London Kills Me (1991) — a film that has been virtually ignored by Kureishi scholars because of its lack of focus on race and class.
Throughout the book, Thomas makes a clear distinction between Kureishi’s earlier work on race and class and his later work on love and human relationships. This is an important thematic distinction, for it reflects the new direction Kureishi’s literary ambitions have taken since the mid-1990s: shorter, sparer fiction about the ‘human condition’ rather than the ‘Condition of England’ (p. 151). Six works in total are discussed in two chapters — Love in a Blue (1997), Intimacy (1998), Sleep With Me (1999), Midnight All (1999), Gabriel’s Gift (2001) and The Body (2002) — all of which indicate the shift to less radical and more male, middle-aged concerns. In these chapters, Thomas maintains that in all his work from this period, Kureishi’s depictions of London as a ‘semi-detached metropolis’ continue to be praised, yet his ‘fictional explorations of contemporary masculinity in crisis’ continue to be received with controversy (p. 142). Furthermore, Thomas asserts that while these works have not yet received much critical attention, Kureishi’s new condensed writing style — markedly different from his earlier novels — has already encountered a negative response. Sukhdev Sandhu, the foremost of these critics, goes as far as to lament that it indicates Kureishi’s decline as a writer (p. 183).
The only weakness in Thomas’s book concerns her final chapter and conclusion. While the chapter title, ‘Cheerful Fictions’, might apply aptly to Gabriel’s Gift, Kureishi certainly does not come to any cheerful conclusions in The Body. Although the possibility of constant renewal is an exciting prospect, The Body has been received as a much more ambivalent work in light of its ambiguous ending. In her own conclusion, Thomas briefly suggests how Kureishi’s most recent works — The Mother, (2003) My Ear at His Heart (2004) — should be regarded: in light of what has gone before, they suggest Kureishi is making further shifts and continuing to experiment and ‘surprise’ (p. 165). However, one wonders if the two novels Thomas discusses just before are isolated incidents—mere ‘surprises’ in terms of Kureishi’s entire oeuvre — or whether by grouping them together as ‘cheerful fictions’ she intends to suggest the next direction he is heading. In fact, Kureishi’s next play indicates otherwise. When the Night Begins (2004), mentioned in Thomas’s book as forthcoming (p. 146), has generally been regarded by reviewers as ‘bleak’.
These minor caveats aside, Thomas’s selection of essential criticism on Kureishi’s work is to be commended. The book is well-researched and comprehensive, and Kureishi is usefully discussed as an iconic and controversial writer within the British canon. Plot summaries of major works, attention to neglected works and balanced outlines of critical reviews are among the strengths of the volume. These strengths will make Thomas’s book an essential guide for undergraduates new to Kureishi’s work and to contemporary British literature.
 David Smale, ed. Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children—Satanic Verses: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillam, 2001). Chaucer, Shakespeare and Joyce are also featured in the Readers’ Guide series.
 Berthold Schoene, ‘Herald of Hybridity: The Emancipation of Difference in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia’. International Journal of Cultural Studies 1:1 (April 1998): 109-28.
 Sukhdev Sandhu, ‘Pop Goes the Centre: Hanif Kureishi’s London’, Laura Chrisman and Benita Parry (eds). Postcolonial Theory and Criticism. (Cambridge: Brewer, 1999), 144.
 Thomas quotes from Sandhu’s well-known review of Midnight All Day, ‘Praise Syndrome’, in the London Review of Books (18 May 2000): 32-35.
 See, for example, Brian Clover’s review of When the Night Begins (2004), available online at http://www.curtainup.com/whenthenightbegins.html, as well as Michael Billington’s review (2004), available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/critic/review/0,,1168054,00.html.
To Cite This Article:
Summer Pervez, ‘Review – Susie Thomas, Hanif Kureishi: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). 240/208 pp. Index and bibliography. ISBN 1403920560 (hbk) £40.00, $65.00; ISBN 1403920575 (pbk) £12.99, $24.95’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 1 (March 2006). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2006/pervez.html. Accessed on [date of access].