The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi is probably best known for his early work: his screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette (made into a film by Stephen Frears and starring Daniel Day-Lewis), won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Screenplay in 1986 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing in 1987; The Buddha of Suburbia won a Whitbread Book Award (now the Costa Book Awards) for the best first novel in 1990. Both are lighthearted works dealing with issues of race and sexuality in Thatcher’s England. His 1998 novel, Intimacy, was a much bleaker sort of work which kicked up controversy: the plot – the story of a man leaving his wife and two young sons – closely resembled Kureishi’s own life. Kureishi’s work has raised the ire of family members throughout his career for laying bare (or misrepresenting) intimate details of their personal lives.

Amid the buzz surrounding his new novel is discussion of the plot’s uncanny resemblance to the story behind Patrick French’s 2008 biography of Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is. Kureishi’s novel is about the battle of wills between two men: Mamoon, the older, eminent writer, and Harry, the young up-and-comer who wants to make his mark in the world by writing Mamoon’s biography. In the book’s promotional clip, Kureishi describes it as a ‘sort of English country comedy, quite light in some ways, but it’s also about some of the most serious things: sexuality, passion, love and writing’.

Kureishi’s writing rolls out at a good clip: there are fantastic, bright lines and his prose is an enchantment – crisp, brisk and sharp as a tack. But The Last Word is also a curious book: Mamoon’s resemblance to Naipaul, whose misogyny is no secret, means that the female characters are necessarily portrayed as objects, around which the two men play out their battle. This portrayal results in a slightly off-kilter reading experience, which suits Kureishi (and his characters) to a T.

Ed Moreno works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.