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You People

Chosen by Farhana

Take one Italian restaurant, pour in a mysterious owner, a portion of waitresses, a generous helping of chefs, who may or may not all be undocumented migrants in fear of police raids, and bring to boil... I’m not sure how a novel set mainly in a family-style restaurant also serves up some major thriller vibes, but Nikita Lalwani’s You People certainly hits the spot.

South London’s ‘Pizzeria Vesuvio’ is not your typical Italian, and neither are its workers. The viewpoint alternates between Nia, a young Welsh waitress who’s dropped out of uni and run away from her troubled mum and little sister, and Shan, a Tamil chef who has paid to be smuggled into the UK after escaping persecution in Sri Lanka, but is desperate to be reunited with his wife and child. As the narrative baton is passed back and forth between the two, we also learn more about the people around them, not least of all their charismatic boss Tuli, and our questions pile up. For example, why is Nia reluctant to see her family again? Why does Shan feel guilty about leaving his? Why is Tuli so eager to help all the misfits who come to him for aid? How well can we ever know and trust a person? What are we prepared to do in order to survive in a hostile world?

This sensitivity to the hostilities of our world is apparent across the author’s wider work. Born in Rajasthan, raised in Cardiff and based in London, Nikita’s fiction has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and has won the Desmond Elliott Prize, and she donated the latter’s prize money to the human rights charity, Liberty. You People is Nikita’s third novel, and it is a thoughtful exploration of identity, belonging, family and even food, and there is much humour as well as tension. For example, Nia suspects that she was only hired to work at the pizzeria because she looks a bit Italian. However she is simply ‘the white Brit waitress’ to Shan, until he is delighted to find out that she is mixed race (Indian father), and even offers to cook her a dish not on the menu, something with ‘masala and chilli’. Soon, these (arbitrary) borders and boundaries blur as they meet more of Tuli’s network and things come to a head when all three are forced to confront danger and weigh up who they can trust and why.

A compelling and compassionate novel that questions how we see and treat each other, You People lingers long after you’ve read it. We at Desi Reads recommend it!

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