Unlike most people (at least so I’m told), what I read is often influenced by who the publisher is. Needless to say when indie publisher Quartet Books agreed to send me a complimentary copy of Coconut Unlimited for the ran$om note, I was not only delighted, but secretly convinced that I would enjoy it. Why? I’m not entirely sure myself, but I reckon it had something to do with the cover. Perhaps it’s me intentionally contradicting the truism that is: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’.
Anyways – the book. Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla, is a coming of age story following the journey of Amit and his two best friends, Anand and Nishant, through their at times turbulent teenage life. Set in Harrow in the 1990’s the novel explores cultural clashes and racial tensions bubbling under the surface of suburban life, the trials and tribulations of being a teenager, and the power of friendship and music.
Amit is the hapless, hip-hop obsessed teenage protagonist whose story centres on his struggles to fit into an all-white private school and Southall’s Asian community. Inspired by his cousin, Neel, Amit forms a hip-hop band called Coconut Unlimited (‘White on the inside, brown on the outside … like coconuts!’) to be pretty cool, get girls and escape everyday life. Coconut Unlimited soon becomes Amit’s life, a fantasy of fame and success.
Amit’s journey is one of self-discovery. He is introduced to the reader as possessing a kind of innocent ignorance (hence his choice of band name, surely), caught in limbo between youth and young manhood. He is shy, insecure and ‘torn between wanting to do well for my parents, and wanting to be either accepted or comfortably ignored by my peers’. In other words he is like every other teenager caught in a slightly alien and hostile environment, and whilst some turn to drugs, submerge themselves in their studies, turn to sports or whatever the case may be, Amit turns to music and fancies himself as an MC whom the world will one day worship.
Coconut Unlimited tackles the theme of racism head on, but through Shukla’s prose these potentially heavy and difficult subjects never impose themselves on the reader; he manages that difficult feat of capturing the voice of his 14-year-old main character perfectly. The language is both rich, in that it manages to portray Amit’s personal and cultural struggles, but also subtle, as it always retains its playfulness and isn’t overbearing. Shukla’s lyrical colloquialism is wonderfully quirky, witty and amusing, and drives the novel along effortlessly.
For me Coconut Unlimited is a kind of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia meets David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, a ‘bildungsroman’ that is diligent and detailed in its assessment of what it means to be Asian and growing up in England. It is very funny and frequently profound. Besides racism, friendship and music it also examines concepts found in contemporary culture including family expectations, cultural values, drugs, bullying and much more. I particularly enjoyed reading this kind of book by an Asian author, something I have not had the pleasure of doing before. I like how it defies the stereotype of what seems to be expected of Asian authors and I hope that more writers, or rather publishers, follow suit – it just goes to show that perhaps you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The best way to sum up this refreshing and very personal debut? In Amit’s own words: ‘smooth, energetic and sweet.’
Special thanks to the kind folks at Quartet Books for sending us a copy of Coconut Unlimited. Go buy a copy and give it to all your friends, you won’t regret it and they’ll probably like you a lot more than before. Really.
Check Matthias Mueller’s excellent Cultural Constellations blog