Chetna Maroo’s debut novel begins a few days after 11-year-old Gopi’s mother’s funeral, which leaves Gopi and her two older sisters in the care of their father. Gopi practises squash every day at Western Lane, a sports centre just outside London. The book ends with her playing the final of the Durham and Cleveland squash tournament. The arc is a Hollywood staple: tragedy, sporting trial, potential triumph. The tension is heightened by squash-obsessed, emotionally uncommunicative Pa; fearful Aunt Ranjan is the obstacle that stands in Gopi’s way. There is a love interest, Ged, whose mother intervenes at just the right moment for the plot (and the wrong moment for Gopi).
Given all this, you might expect Western Lane to feel formulaic, but it doesn’t. It feels like the work of a writer who knows what they want to do, and who has the rare ability to do it.
Gopi is attuned to subtle details that offer clues to the inner lives of the adults around her: Pa’s failure to fix a radiator, low voices in the garden at night, a spilled glass of chaas. She becomes aware that Aunt Ranjan and Uncle Pavan, who have no children of their own, want her to live with them in Edinburgh. Pa is distracted. Gopi can’t be sure he won’t agree.
Maroo also pays attention to communication outside language. Gopi is attracted to Ged’s stammer because “it seemed like you were drifting close to him in the silence”. When Gopi occasionally remembers something about her mother, it is visceral – watching Wimbledon while eating strawberries with sugar. She and her sisters aren’t fluent in Gujarati, which their mother spoke much better than English. The language barrier meant they “pulled at her, pushed into her, made ourselves physical in her presence”.
In her mother’s absence, Gopi makes herself physical on the squash court. Gopi cares how her feet fall on the court, the curve of her arm through the air, how close she can keep to the “T”. She loves listening to the “sound from the next court of a ball hit clean and hard”, which has an echo “louder than the shot itself”. With Pa, she spends hours “ghosting”, which means playing with something crucial missing – the ball – in a practice that seems more significant “than a rehearsal or drill”. They stay up late to watch the same video of the great Pakistani champion Jahangir Khan over and over again. These activities all explore aspects of Gopi’s grief. Maroo also takes it for granted, as Gopi does, that squash matters. Just as important to the novel, and just as vivid, is the almost inexpressible experience of a human body negotiating a transparent box, the heightened awareness that “Jahangir had for a situation, his sense for what was going on behind him”.
To navigate the sport’s punishing constraints, Gopi learns, you “have to find the shots and make the space you need”. There is a parallel with the tight enclosure of the short novel. Maroo has a talent for making the space she needs for emotional complexity by way of physical description. “There was a sullenness about her,” she writes of eldest sister Mona, “a tightness in her muscles, and a refusal of ease or rhythm in her movement.” This conveys all the tensions – between care and resentment, responsibility and envy – that play out over the course of the story.
Before the tournament, Mona spends money she’s earned herself on a new racket for her youngest sister. It’s made of metal rather than Pa’s preferred wood. Pa is outwardly positive, but Gopi reads his “eyes and body”: “He was telling us that in one day we had exposed him, left him behind, left him wide open to whatever was coming for him.” Pa is searching for something more than Gopi can provide, and Gopi knows that this makes him vulnerable. In order to win, she needs to remember what he has taught her, and go beyond what he can express. In the unlikely arena of a high-pressure tournament match, she finally discovers a place where “no one was rushing me, and if I wanted to, I could think”.
• Western Lane is published by Picador (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.