Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian review – a magical debut

In a fictional Atlanta suburb that’s a “bubble of brownness”, young Neil Narayan wonders if, in post-9/11 Bush-era America, “there were other ways of being brown on offer”. He is not sure there are, not unless he can “write himself” into American history. “There was no room to imagine multiple sorts of futures”, either. Sanjena Sathian’s satirical and magical debut, Gold Diggers, is full of such searches for answers: for alternative histories and futures.

Pressured by Indian immigrant parents, Neil, like his peers, is desperate to excel. In his world, excellence means top grades, teen pageants and Ivy League universities. He is even more desperate, however, for the attention of his high school crush Anita Dayal. And then he discovers that she and her mother are gold thieves; they have been stealing jewellery, and by extension “ambition”, from folk within their community and melting it into an ancient alchemical potion in their basement. This “lemonade” is a shortcut to success, transferring the ambition of the owner of the gold to the drinker. Overachievers both, Neil and Anita can’t get enough of the drink and ride high on their own friends’ ambitions. But there are consequences to stealing a part of someone, and the lemonade soon begins to leave a bitter aftertaste.

Fast forward a decade and, in the second half of the novel, there’s a shift from adolescent Bildungsroman to adult shenanigans in Silicon Valley and a Bollywood-esque jewellery heist. Neil, now a PhD candidate in history at Berkeley, and Anita, a Stanford drop-out, are surreptitiously reunited. Together, they turn nostalgic, remembering the misadventures and tragedies of their teenage years. They could still use a dose of the good old lemonade, but Anita’s mother – the original creator of the drink – needs it more. Will they steal to secure her future, as she once did for them?

With a pacy plot and a protagonist you feel for, Gold Diggers blends magic, mythology, alchemy and melodrama into a story about anxiety, assimilation and ambition (“the substance to settle the nerves of immigrant parents”). Indian immigrants, we’re told, were “duty bound to live out” the American dream. But “what does it mean to be both Indian and American?” The question troubles Neil and Anita, who identify as “conceptual orphans”. The pair are always thirsty for answers – as they once were for the gold potion that boosted their desire to succeed and therefore truly belong, and as their ancestors were before them, for America itself: “the metonymy for more”.

In some ways, Gold Diggers is a delightful concoction of the best of South Asia’s literary offerings, reminiscent of Hanif Kureishi’s irreverent humour in The Buddha of Suburbia and, more recently, the magic realism of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Salman Rushdie’s work. Despite these locatable lineages, Sathian has forged a narrative path entirely her own. She is not interested in social realism or satire for satire’s sake. Instead, she tackles familiar issues of mental health, the “model minority” trap and the generation gap with a fresh literary toolkit and voice. There’s also a foray into historical fiction through the insertion of “The Tale of the Bombayan Gold Digger”, a nugget of history that Neil discovers in the library in an attempt to locate Indian roots on American soil during the California gold rush.

Gold is among the rarest, most precious and malleable of metals. Sathian brings a golden touch to the 21st-century Indian American novel – stretching it through a reimagining of history and mythology, yet holding it close to her chest.

Gold Diggers is published by Simon & Schuster (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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