The Accidental Apprentice
Simon & Schuster
REVIEW: Jennifer Crocker
Vikas Swarup took the reading world by storm with his first novel Q&A, which was subsequently made into a mega-hit movie Slumdog Millionaire. In the Accidental Apprentice he returns to a familiar theme: What would happen to you if your whole life was changed by chance?
As with Q&A Swarup begins his story with an apparently ordinary main character, her name is Sapna Sinha and she is a dutiful daughter to her sickly mother and her somewhat wild younger sister Neha. Sapna works as a sales clerk in an electronics store. She is diligent and bright. Too bright for her job, too constrained by her responsibilities to further her studies or pursue her dream.
On her weekly visit to a temple she meets one of India’s richest men, Vinay Mohan Acharya. He has a startling proposition for her: he wants to make her his CEO and the heir to his vast business kingdom. Sapna, being a sensible girl thinks he is mad, but he persists with what is comedic in an almost Shakespearian manner. Sapna is told that he has recognised a spark in her that he has not seen in any of his underlings or protégés. Sapna turns him down at first, but then when her family is faced with being thrown out of their apartment, and her mother’s gold dowry bracelets are stolen from her, she reconsiders.
Acharya’s offer though is not unconditional; before assuming the powerful position he is offering her and the wealth that goes with it, Sapna must pass seven tests. She is not to be told what they are, but tests they will be.
And so begins a marvellously touching and hilariously funny story.
Probably the main reason that Swarup succeeds in telling a story that is totally absurd in many regards is that he has the skill to weave a story in such a way that the reader is drawn into believing the very unlikely events that unfold within it. The fact that he writes with beautiful style and elegance, overlaid with sly wit does not hurt either.
It would be true to say that there is not one wasted or incidental character in this book. Whether he is drawing a pen picture for us of a main character or a beggar by the wayside he colours them in with near perfect characterisation.
Sapna is sworn to secrecy about her quest to pass her seven tests, and this allows Swarup to add another layer to the book. As we read about the absurd situation she is in, we also follow her day-to-day life. She has to deal with her sister’s refusal to accept that they are poor; she makes sacrifices for her mother, and deals with their batty neighbour who goes on a Ghandi-like quest to fight corporate corruption.
She meets a young woman reporter who becomes an integral part of the story, and keeps on working at the appliance store.
Through the conflation of the theatre of the absurd and the drudge of daily life, Sapna is being led through her seven tasks. They are not without danger and every single one of them requires her to make a moral decision.
Of course the danger exists with a complex and slightly mad plot that the book could spin out of control, but Swarup avoids this by maintaining a strict control over the sometimes circus-like ride of The Accidental Apprentice. He threads a strong sense of morality through the book, making it almost like a modern morality play without ever preaching. The overarching message of this book is that extraordinary things are happening to a young woman who is trying to maintain a façade of normality while at times doubting her own sanity.
Not only does the author achieve this feat, but he also manages to thread in a thriller-like component to the tale that turns Sapna into not only an heiress in waiting but also into an unwilling sleuth.
As she is forced to use every ounce of cunning and guile to survive her tests, Sapna will have to make deeply moral choices, she will also discover on her journey exactly who she is.
India is not known for magic realism in its literary canon, but it is known for making the mystic part of everyday life, Sapna is a modern woman, but carries within her deep traditional beliefs, she has normal desires and normal temptations, but she will learn to value what it is that she truly believes a and stands for. The reader is drawn through her experiences and in reading the book invited to evaluate their own choices. At times the book feels like it is asking the reader: what would you do if you were in this situation.
Drawing on the past and the present of India, Swarup has written a book that is light and funny at times, and deeply moving at others. This is an author who can write about deeply serious issues while taking himself with an apparent pinch of salt. Perhaps this is the magic of his books? An utterly wonderful book about self-discovery and fulfilling a dream in a way that is unexpected and surprising. A pure delight.
- This column first appeared in the Cape Times in July 2013