Sweetness and Light by Liam Pieper
Liam Pieper’s unsettling, atmospheric second novel, Sweetness and Light, is set first on the west coast of India and later on the east. We initially encounter Australian expat Connor, who is ostensibly a dive instructor in the semi-isolated tourist hamlet of Shanti. Once, Connor was going to be an Olympic swimmer. Now, his primary industry is women: rich white women seeking their Eat, Pray, Love epiphany. Just like everyone else in Shanti, Connor works for Baba. Connor takes a cut, but it is to Baba that he gives each crop of photos of passports and bank cards reaped from his cynical romantic endeavours. It is Baba’s people who, months later, clean out the women’s accounts. However, it’s been a while since the last viable ‘talent’ and Connor is feeling a bit desperate, on several levels. Then a dive goes badly and Connor is hauled in by the local police.
Sasha is a Brooklynite, the only child of her Russian father, who died by suicide when she was young, and her Polish mother, who now denies Sasha’s father’s original existence. An almost-doctor escaping a falling apart marriage back at home, Sasha is on a yoga retreat in an exclusive ashram a few hours out of Chennai. The dubiousness of this cultish ashram (relaxingly policed by men with guns and dogs) without a single Indian yogi is clear, and only becomes more apparent. When Sasha briefly leaves the ashram to attend to unwanted business, she meets Connor, on unwanted business of his own, on a train ride back across the country.
Pieper deliberately positions this novel as a tale of tourists; there are a few local characters, but they are observed by the tourists and no local perspectives are assumed. There are brutal episodes in many of the characters' pasts, and the implications of twists in the present are profoundly disturbing. Sweetness and Light is a high-stakes, self-aware literary thriller mostly peopled by lost souls and corrupt operators – and the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.