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Book Review

‘The Caretaker’ by A.X. Ahmad

A. X. Ahmad.

A. X. Ahmad.

A cold place, the Vineyard in winter, the sea more angry than calm, the cliffs and beaches rather desolate, the population reduced from 50,000-plus tourists to about 12,000 locals, some of them working through the off-season as caretakers for the houses left empty by their wealthy owners.

Into this cold and lonely place comes a refugee from India, a former military officer named Ranjit Singh who has left his homeland in disgrace after a battlefront debacle involving deaths from friendly fire high on a glacier in the northern no man’s land between India and Pakistan.

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Having lived in Boston with his wife and young daughter for what he sees as two miserable winters in a “small run-down apartment” where it had “snowed endlessly,” Singh heads to the Vineyard to find work in better surroundings. There he takes a job as caretaker at the summer home of a US senator and finds himself in a much worse debacle than the one that forced him to flee his homeland.

The senator is an actor on the world stage, gaining attention as an international crisis negotiator. But as Singh enters the picture, the senator’s popularity is lagging at home — both in politics and in his bedroom. His marriage is troubled, his wife pulls Singh toward her, and before too long the Singh family takes up illicit residence in the legislator’s house. The former Indian officer, thanks to his daughter’s sticky fingers, soon discovers evidence of an international scheme with the senator at the center that will make for deadly circumstances. With his family threatened by immediate deportation and some off-the-books government agents on his heels, Singh finds himself forced to flee into the depths of another Boston winter — before he turns his military skills against the men who are trying to capture him. As he tries to get to the truth behind the senator’s much lauded intervention into the politics of the Korean peninsula, he uncovers a bribery scheme that includes high-tech weaponry that any country would like to get its hands on.

Singh remains an interesting character throughout despite Ahmad’s workmanlike prose, which relies too much on declarative sentences and too little on the color of both urban and island settings. (Even the winter storm that blows up at the end of the novel seems generic and might have happened anywhere in the north.) And when the plot thickens the story degenerates. Ahmad tends to overplay his past in the Kashmir theater of war by switching to scenes from that part of Singh’s life whenever he needs to explain why the war veteran behaves the way he does. And he also adds a hokey strand of narrative that involves Singh’s hallucinations about a former soldier under his command who died in the high-mountain battle.

The shift back and forth between India and the Vineyard weakens the forward movement of the narrative, and, alas, the lags provide time to think about the embattled senator and his wife and ponder just how realistic these depictions might be. If you’re trapped in a blizzard in a house in Menemsha and “The Caretaker” is the only book on the shelf, it will help you get through the storm. But if you have other choices, I don’t know that I can strongly recommend it.

Alan Cheuse is the book commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” His latest work of fiction is a trio of novellas titled “Paradise of Eat Your Face.’’ He can be reached at acheuse@gmu.edu.
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