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Originally published Sunday, July 27, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘The City Son’: lives fractured by intrafamilial desire

In “The City Son,” Nepalese-American writer Samrat Upadhyay chronicles a family fractured by an illicit relationship.

Special to The Seattle Times


‘The City Son’

by Samrat Upadhyay

Soho Press, 256 pp., $25

In his debut novel, “The Guru of Love,” Whiting Award winner Samrat Upadhyay, the first Nepalese-American author to write in English, pursued the theme of desire. There he depicted an extramarital affair between a teacher and his tutee. Now in his second, he explores a similar theme, portrayed in an illicit relationship between a mother and her stepson.

Didi, an unattractive woman in a Nepalese village, marries an unassuming academic, the Masterji. Although he can barely look at her face, the Masterji finds himself dominated by Didi in bed. Intimidated and exhausted, he moves to a big city alone to tutor students and occasionally visits his wife and their two sons.

On learning that her husband has taken a second wife, Didi at first shows little reaction. But soon she travels to the city with her children and moves in with the Masterji, thereby disrupting the lives of his second family. That family consists of Apsara, a gentle, beautiful woman, and her handsome young son, Tarun. Whether for revenge, to re-establish her dominance, or enamored of his good looks, Didi begins to favor Tarun over her own children, thus creating resentment in the extended family.

Eventually the domineering Didi expels Apsara, who rents a place for herself and Tarun. Devastated and unhappy, Apsara soon begins to lose her mind and, shortly thereafter, her job — a kindhearted uncle provides shelter for herself and her son.

A short time later, Apsara dies. Tarun, overwhelmed by a need to be mothered, begins to visit his father’s home frequently. Slowly, Didi entices him into an illicit relationship. The Masterji notices but, instead of trying to stop her, gradually retreats into sullen alienation from those around him. As an employed twenty-something, living on his own, Tarun continues to see Didi clandestinely. Although he meets women of his own age, Tarun, deeply shamed by his unsavory relationship with his stepmother, cannot relate to them. Has he been scarred forever? Can he ever free himself from the depraved Didi and find happiness?

Although Upadhyay’s characters are more or less well drawn, a crucial question about Didi remains unanswered. How can such an ordinary, unlikable woman manage to wield so much power? Although references have been made to her sexual prowess and cooking ability, those alone fail to offer a believable explanation. Lamentably, other characters such as Apsara, who are far more sympathetic, have only been given secondary roles, which makes for a long, sad, unfulfilling story.

Seattle author Bharti Kirchner’s most recent novel is “Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery.”

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