“I never tell people where exactly I am and I won’t tell you which city I live in either,” says the sceptical, sardonic narrator of Your Driver Is Waiting, Priya Guns’s debut about social precarity and solidarity. “In our current times, a city is a place, is a space, is the same everywhere minus the design of buildings, the demographics, and the weather.” Thus Damani Krishanthan, a ride-share driver, establishes two things early on: that she’s in control at the wheel – choosing what to reveal to the reader and what to withhold – and that there’s no room for the baggage of “where you come from” in her boot. Injustice is the same everywhere.
At 30, Damani is disaffected and desperate. Between caring for her mostly immobile mother and grieving the loss of her father – who died while working a fast-food job, and whose spectre is always an absent presence in the passenger seat – she has little choice but to keep driving. She is surviving from paycheck to paycheck. Fuel prices are up and the tips are few and far between. Her customers include blabbering drunks, vomiting toddlers and a predictable portion of entitled men with unsolicited opinions. Rob (with a rating of 4.4 stars) starts the ride with “Aren’t you too pretty to be driving out so late? YOU’RE FUCKING BRAVE!” Yet Damani drives on, an arsenal of weapons – switchblade, pepper spray, scissors – tucked in the glove compartment and under her seat. The app is pinging.
All around her, the city is teeming. As she glides on four wheels “without being the change I wanted to see in the world”, past sign after sign, protest after protest – “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER!”, “Climate Justice Is Gender and Racial Justice”, “The Police & Army CANNOT Protect Us Here Or There” – she realises she cannot afford to leave the driver’s seat and march.
From her car, she contemplates the distance between imagination and action, and the way things were: “This part of the city used to be cool but it wasn’t, but then it was forced to be a different kind of cool. A pricey one. I think they call that gentrification.” The novel places systemic oppression and exploitation front and centre as Damani tosses out scathing critiques of the gig economy and white supremacy in much the same way that she throws out racist and sexist passengers.
Late-night visits to the Doo Wop club – the “only taste of functioning utopia” – provide ephemeral escapes. Something changes, though, when Jolene (5 stars) enters her car. A social worker, she has read the right books by the right people, and fights against baddies and for good causes. It’s a whirlwind romance, but Damani is wary: Jolene is, after all, a wealthy white woman, albeit a “well meaning” one. Then Jolene meets Damani’s friends for the first time; discussions escalate and dangerous assumptions are made about their activist plans. When Jolene asks if “violence is the answer”, Damani’s friend Steph spits back: “Oppression is violence in itself.” By the end of a dramatic night – involving a raid on Doo Wop, and a car crash – Damani is left questioning everything. The reader remembers her early doubts: were she and Jolene ever really “seeing the world the same”?
Your Driver Is Waiting houses the radical politics found in the work of Yara Rodrigues Fowler and Meena Kandasamy, yet the brazenness and forthrightness of her prose puts Guns in a space of her own. How far will you go for love, or to survive? What happens when you reach a tipping point? And “how do you know how to live when you’ve never been given the freedom to?” With a full tank, and rage in her revolutionary heart, Damani drives towards a better world.
• Your Driver Is Waiting is published by Atlantic (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.