Cat & Fiddle
The charm of Cat & Fiddle lies in Lesley Jorgensen's story-spinning chutzpah.
Plenty of books and movies have tried to update the great comedies of Jane Austen in recent decades, but few have been as successful as this. Cat & Fiddle is a big-hearted, clamorous comedy of East-meets-West that is also, in true Austen tradition, utterly unsentimental about social power. Crucially, it's set in contemporary Britain's Anglo-Bangladeshi community, a culture in which marriage broking apparently still involves the tremendously high stakes it once did for Mrs Bennet.
This is a tale of two very different British families, each unhappy in its own way. There are the Bournes, two thirtysomething brothers who are heirs to an old, Gothic Wiltshire abbey that provides the novel's chief setting; and there are the Choudhurys, whose paterfamilias, architecture historian Dr Choudhury, has moved his middle-class family into a cottage nearby while he advises on Bourne Abbey's costly restoration. It's the Choudhurys who hog the show. Mrs Begum, Choudhury's wife, has three grown children who need marrying. Her ''plotting for family unity, grandchildren and general advancement of the Choudhurys'' is the glorious mission at the heart of this tale.
East duly meets West, but it's complicated - pride and prejudice are the least of it. The fastidious, wonderfully vain Dr Choudhury raised his son, Tariq, to be ''the perfect blend of East and West: comfortable in sherwani and dinner jacket, Bangla and English. Yes. Curry and pudding.'' But the Choudhurys flounder between worlds; between the doctor's secular, Anglophile professional life, and the Bangladeshi traditions upheld by ''the community'' in London's Brick Lane.
''What sort of Desi family are we?'' Tariq wonders during a moment of despair. His disgraced sister - her shame is to have been publicly photographed, as a promising young artist, with a boy (''Like a page-three slut,'' her father fumes) - has an idea. ''F---ed up, I reckon, like all the Anglo Desis.''
The Bournes are no less at the mercy of their heritage. Theirs is a ''decomposing'' family, one brother thinks, crippled by the ''gigantic burden of ancestral obligation''.
Cat & Fiddle has its own ancestral line, of course, and Jorgensen openly relishes it, with nods to Austen (dogs named Knightley and Darcy) and to the rich history of literary romance in general. There's a ghost, a maiden in a tower, stormy walks across meadows, and drawing-room set-pieces. And echoes of more recent books, too.
Indefatigably bent on arranging both marriages and maximum drama, Mrs Begum strongly recalls Mrs Rupa Mehra from A Suitable Boy. But John Lanchester's recent Capital isn't far off, either: another big-canvas novel capable of inhabiting the intimate hopes and fears of very different people. This book, too, knows a startling amount about what its characters are like when they're alone, and how painfully wide the gap between inner and public selves can be. It's also very funny, frequently in an offhandedly savage way. Some of the jokes are as sharp as the dhaa blade Mrs Begum uses to slice mangoes.
But the charm lies in Jorgensen's story-spinning chutzpah. This jet-fuelled melodrama crashes from one unprecedented crisis to the next, taking in desperate family secrets, betrayals, misunderstandings, walled-up mysteries and delicious coincidence. Inevitably, there's some excess in this plenitude: a couple of plot threads are left dangling and Mrs Begum's devotion to the royal family seems a superfluous bit of business for a character already teeming with vitality.
It hardly matters. Even if you guess where things are heading early on, the route is continually surprising. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that such a free-spirited feast of a book should prove to be so tough-minded about love and marriage, and so touching about the consolations of duty.