London. A young student falls in love with her University tutor. Married Dr Ben Martin, advocator of women’s rights and author of titles such as ‘Daughters of Africa’ and ‘Gender and Law Reform in Africa’, is a respected member of the academic Faculty. Rita Kalungal, Nineteen, is a first year Anthropology student, and his tutee.
Their affair, they convince themselves, is inevitable. But when an unexpected turn of events brings their relationship to a final, and abrupt, end, it is Rita who is left alone to deal with the consequences of both their actions.
Whilst this initial premise of the novel may sound predictably familiar, Sheena Kalayil’s second novel, The Inheritance, is anything but. Kalayil’s elegant narrative deftly leads its readers away from the well-trodden path of the student-teacher affair cliché, belying its opening chapters, to explore complex issues on themes of family, migration and identity. It is a love story at heart, but Kalayil’s nuanced and layered narrative elevates the ordinary subject matter and moves beyond it.
Split into a five-part structure, the novel’s poetic opening paragraph sets the stage for the ensuing drama. Rita and Ben, almost twenty years her senior, are children of migrants. Ben’s family, we’re told, have wandered from England, to India, to Rhodesia, and finally Harare, whilst Rita’s family from Kerala to London. Beyond the physical attraction, the lovers are drawn together by a shared sense of longing to belong somewhere. Each seeks their own kind of solace in the other’s arms.
Their growing attraction to each other is filtered through Rita’s eyes. Her almost constant stream of consciousness, especially in the early stages of the affair, the self-doubt and hesitant second guessing, the questioning of every word said and trivial action enacted by ‘Ben Martin’, capture the insecurities of a young woman: ‘you choose the music,’ he suggests, and she ‘search[es] the radio stations, unsure what her selection would reveal about herself.’
The passionate and short-lived affair leaves Rita suspended. Unable to move forward, not quite stuck in the past – she hovers in an in between state, trying to come to terms with what they did, and the ramifications were their families to discover the truth of their relationship. It’s a fear that is realised early on when Francois, Ben’s older brother, learning of the affair, tracks down Rita in the vague hope that, perhaps, seeing her, knowing her, will help him somehow understand the brother lost to him.
The narrative alternates between Rita and Francois, a gentle rhythm, as it oscillates and intersperses moments in time from the character’s lives. We view the same events from Rita’s and Francois’s perspective, the subtle shifts in voice unravel a complex web of relationships, parents, siblings, lovers past and present, and always with Ben at the heart of them: son, brother, husband, and lover.
‘His brother wrote about women; he painted them’, Rita wryly observes to Francois, early on in their uneasy acquaintance. The more Francois learns of Rita, the more he finds himself attracted to her, just like his younger brother was, whose absence is felt in every look, every gesture and word – spoken or unspoken. Excerpts of Ben’s academic work, research on African societies, the Land Reform Act, marriage and inheritance – a brother’s wife passed to a brother, intrude on the painful memories of childhood opportunities lost. Perhaps, Francois muses, Rita’s entrance in their lives is a chance for him to put things right, to finally lay old grievances to rest, and begin again.
Kalayil is not as interested in engaging with the cultural nuances of her characters’ situation, as she is in developing her variation on the traditional romance. Not unlike the work of her fellow Manchester graduate Meera Syal, The Inheritance is a sensitive mediation on love in its many forms, on guilt, and loss, as Kalayil raises questions on what it is that we really inherit from those we love. What does it mean to belong in a world, to a family, where we are as transient as our emotions, where relationships, people, can simply be ‘picked up and dropped’?