Sandip Roy's "Don't Let Him Know" reads more as a collection of linked stories than a full novel — which makes sense, since several of its chapters were first published as stand-alones. The saga of an Indian family, it zeros in for the most part on two generations: Romola Mitra and her husband, Avinash, and their only child, Amit.
As the book begins, Romola, now a widow, is visiting Amit in Northern California, where he lives with his American wife and young son. One evening, he gives her a letter he has found in an old address book, a plaint of sorts sent many years before from a former lover named Sumit.
"Romola sat there in Amit's armchair slightly stunned," Roy writes. "After all these years how could she have been so careless? She knew she had saved the letter, unable to destroy it the way she should have years ago. She remembered reading it and rereading it, each word striking her like a sledgehammer, cracking her open over again and again."
And yet, we learn in the following chapter, which takes us back 40 years to the early days of Romola's marriage, the letter was meant not for her but Avinash. This is the secret conflict at the center of the novel, so veiled Romola cannot even speak of it. "She lay curled up on her side," Roy tells us, "her fists clenched in her moth to prevent herself from screaming. She buried her face in the pillow and tried to summon up the old familiar smells of home."
Roy, of course, understands this territory from all sides; born in India, he spent years in San Francisco before returning to Calcutta, where he now lives. He is a senior editor at the news site Firstpost and has covered LGBT issues for NPR. At its best, "Don't Let Him Know" merges — or, more fundamentally, presents — this clash of sensibilities: Indian and American, traditional and tolerant.
For Romola, a virgin in an arranged marriage, the issue of her husband's sexuality is so overwhelming as to be incomprehensible … although what can she, can any of them do? Nothing except to make the best of it, to try to put the past behind her, to use silence not as a weapon so much as a shield.
The same is true of Avinash, who brings her for a year to Carbondale, Ill., where he is completing graduate studies, before returning to Calcutta, where he settles into a life that is constrained. "I have a good job," he tells Sumit, when they are reunited, briefly. "My mother is happy. She has a grandson. Romola takes good care of her. And I adore Amit." The unanswered question belongs to Sumit. "But are you happy?" he asks.
What Roy is getting at is quiet desperation, the sense that opportunity has passed. This makes Avinash something of a tragic figure — or would, if "Don't Let Him Know" could settle long enough on him for us to plumb the depths of his interior.
Roy, though, has opted for a more kaleidoscopic structure, one that moves through time, from character to character, in which the novel is developed as a panorama rather than a direct line. This has its charms, to be sure; if nothing else, it allows us to meet and re-meet the people here from a variety of angles and perspectives. At the same time, it only diffuses the effect of the larger narrative.
Who is the protagonist of this novel, after all? For Roy, it seems, the answer is the family. Still, can a family really function as a protagonist? Or is it more effective to trace the impact of family, with all its tortured history, on the lives of individuals?
To be fair, that appears to be the intention, to look at Avinash, Amit, even Romola through a lens that does not judge so much as record who they are. All are frustrated in some sense, bound by obligation: to themselves, to each other, to the faces they present to the world.
In the novel's closing chapter, Romola returns to Carbondale with Amit and his family, only to wind up lost, in a gay bar, where she makes an unlikely connection with a cross-dressing Bangladeshi. The scene is meant to echo a moment earlier in the novel, when Romola gets lost in different circumstances, looking for a McDonald's in her son's suburban town.
"Some days," Roy writes, "she wanted someone to say, 'Okay, you have followed the rules long enough. You are free now.' But no one ever did." Quiet desperation again, although the payoff, when it comes, is too distant, too incidental — or perhaps it's more accurate to say that it is just not focused enough.
Partly that's a matter of structure and partly of expectations left unfulfilled. That letter, for instance, which plays such a looming role in the first three chapters, afterward disappears as if never sent. The issue of sexuality, of hiding, becomes little more than subtext, emerging only in an isolated incident of cruising that goes scarily wrong.
This might be more effective were Avinash easier to access; as it is, he is a cipher by and large. It might work also were he and Romola to have a confrontation, but once she has set aside her grief and anger, she vows never to speak of it.
All that may be as it would be in life, but narrative fiction has other requirements. The burden of the novel is to seek connection or at least to dig into the disconnected places and explicate the chasms, emotional or otherwise, that keep us from each other and ourselves. "Don't Let Him Know," however, never achieves this integration, reading instead as a set of loosely associated tales. There is a weight here, but like Romola and Avinash and Amit, we cannot quite access it or the tangled center of the novel's heart.
Don't Let Him Know
Bloomsbury: 244 pp., $25