When I was in my second year of University, in my first International Relations class, my professor played comedian Bo Burnham’s video. In it, he merrily – almost giddily – sings, “Private property’s inherently theft / And neoliberal fascists are destroying the left”. This is narrated by Socko, a sock puppet who has just returned from “a frightening, liminal space between states of being, not quite dead, not quite alive”. British novelist Sunjeev Sahota’s protagonist in The Spoiled Heart, Nayan Olak, is similar to Socko in three ways: his political ideologies, his transitional state of being, and finally, the fact that his voice, and therefore his story, is entirely dictated by the invisible hand that props him up.

Being brown in small-town England

Politics – in its broadest and most minute sense – forms the meat of the novel. Mainly the range of leftist politics and the growing fractures between a) the need for identity-specific schemes; and b) the inherent fractures that identity politics promotes. The set-up is simple: a community of NRIs navigate being brown in the small English town of Chesterfield. The residents need immigrant business (and labour) but resent their presence. It's a familiar tale and, at times, almost seems trite: “Surely no good could come from this brown man’s interest in that white woman”.

Sahota’s work is always interested in the Indian immigrants’ politics, or rather, the political conversation forced upon them. But in The Spoiled Heart, this proclivity is turned up a notch, partly because Nayan, the “beating heart” of the story, is running to be a union leader and pages of the book are dedicated to his speeches and their rebuttals. This is the most straightforward way to make a point: to have two people talk to and question each other, thus enlightening the reader. But Sahota blends these conversations into a larger web of characters who are each affected by prejudice differently, making the whole novel a detailed study of race and class relations in the cancel culture world of today.

Despite the heavy themes, the novel is a family-oriented mystery at its core. The mystery in question is finding out who set fire to Nayan’s parent’s home, killing his mother and four-year-old son. After this tragedy, Nayan and his wife divorced, and they now meet only once a year, on their son’s birthday, to sit at a park bench. Sajjan Dhanoa, a writer and a fellow resident of Chesterfield, undertakes the genre-traditional detective role. At a pub one day, Sajjan is mistaken for Nayan – another racial slight – which sets him down memory lane, gathering testimonies and witnesses for the pure pleasure of satisfying his curiosity. But like most mysteries, everyone is lying, not out of spite, but from varying shades of regret, shame, and loss.

The star witness, whom Sajjan never speaks to, is the novel’s catalyst. The story begins by asking a question that threads through the lives of all Chesterfield residents: “Helen Fletcher’s returned home?” Nayan meets Helen on his jogging route almost two decades after the fire. She is cold, uninviting, and sparks his immediate – and long-dormant – romantic interest. After repeated meetings, with no sign of thaw, Nayan offers Helen’s son Brandon a job taking care of his difficult father, Pyara. Helen is dead against it, but Brandon needs the money, and Nayan is just trying to get care for his father (and the possibility of a date with Helen). Helen finally gives in, and when Nayan is leaving their house, Brandon calls out to him to say, with a tremor in his throat, “We're not racists. Me and my mum. We’re not. I don’t want you to have that impression.” This is an awkward situation for both, but one stemming from goodwill, and pinpoints a kind of hyperawareness that underscores every page.

Public judgements

Tension and discomfort are the pillars of The Spoiled Heart, and it is most blatant when the story behind Helen and Brandon’s return is revealed. Working as a low-earning cook at a prestigious school with wealthy students, Brandon was instructed to keep the dining area free to welcome important guests. A girl sat down at the table, and Brandon asked her to move once, twice, and eventually, loudly. She was wearing headphones, he didn’t know, and the damage was done. That night, a post went up on Facebook. “This angry, red-faced white man came right to me and told me to get out…he was so out-of-his-mind with hatred at the site of a Black girl calmly getting on with her life.” Brandon is immediately fired, protestors camp outside his house, and death threats flood his inbox. Everyone suffers, and no progress – individual or symbolic – is made. By the end, everyone in the novel finds themselves in public judgement like this, surrounded by “the sin, the gathering around the heretic, the stoning”.

For all the character work, this is still a plot-heavy story that leads not to a singular, explosive ending but to several small-scale ruptures that culminate in an obliteration of reality. If a healthy beating heart is blood-red, the colour of Nayan’s Marxism or the autopsy table of his mother and child, then the novel subverts such vibrancy, preferring repeated bursts of purple instead. Littered sporadically through chapters, purple keeps cropping up, be it a “flash of purple at the edge of her vision” that dissipates into nothing or “a purple shirt and sparkly paper bag” that dissolves. The colour of hearts in livor mortis is, of course, purple. And by the end, there is not a single heart that is left clean. “Spoiled hearts, indeed.”

The Spoiled Heart, Sunjeev Sahota, Penguin Random House.