NIKITA LALWANI reading in the Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queens Quay West), Saturday (October 20), 4 pm; and joining a round table in the Lakeside Terrace (235 Queens Quay West), Sunday (October 21), 2 pm. 416-973-4000, www.readings.org. Rating: NNNN
Nikita Lalwani is bristling a bit. I'm asking her why so many women of colour in the UK are writing so many great books: Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy. I'm thinking it's a compliment, but she doesn't see it that way.
"Yes, colour is political - and, yes, in Britain now there is an increased feeling of suspicion," she says on the phone from her home in London, England. "So if you're identified by colour and if you don't acknowledge that, you're not living in your own skin.
"But there's the whole area of political correctness and being pigeon-holed. People are aware of these few books, and there's an old-fashioned notion that they're about 'the other.' If there were 10 books about the Second World War, we wouldn't consider them a separate experience, something other than the British experience."
Her response, combative and pointed, is typical of the prose in her gut-wrenching first novel, Gifted. It's the story of an immigrant Indian couple living in Cardiff, Wales, who are trying to cope with their unusual daughter, Rumi, a math prodigy.
Lalwani was more shocked than anyone else when, just two years after she started writing the book, it made this year's Booker long list. She wrote the book quickly, in 18 months, then sent it out looking for an agent and got responses within two days. She sold the book and immediately found herself pregnant, finished the edit weeks before giving birth and saw the proofs when her baby was six days old. Then she was on the Booker list.
She got the call about the Booker, coincidentally, while she was in Cardiff on a rare visit to her hometown.
"I was walking past my old high school. You couldn't have made up a better. (Rumi's high school is a major location in Gifted.)"
Rumi's father, Mahesh, himself a university lecturer, appoints himself her coach. First step, after-school sessions at the library. Second step, soul-crushing pressure to take O-level exams when she's barely 15 to get her into Oxford. Third step, shipping her off to the storied university.
Along the way, he fails to notice Rumi's resistance. He has no idea she's reading novels when she's supposed to be doing math equations. And he can't tolerate what her teenage hormones are doing to her powers of concentration.
"I was interested in the idea of standing out," Lalwani explains. "There are quite a lot of of maths students in the Asian diaspora, and I think that's because math is not culturally specific. It's something like doing card tricks.
"But if you're gifted and doing accelerated learning, you're always in the spotlight. And while you're accelerated in that area, you're absolutely behind when it comes to emotional growth."
Rumi often indulges in a reverie full of equations and numbers - they read almost like a series of chants - but Lalwani never leaves the reader behind.
"Actually, the math in the book is quite innocent. It doesn't track physics and the bigger issues of the universe. Rumi uses math as a mantra - she's almost obsessive-compulsive - and it's more like a hollow gift. That's why when she gets to the real stuff in university, things fall apart."
That's not giving too much away. You're not 50 pages into the novel before you realize that something's going to go terribly wrong. Gifted has an air of dread that keeps you reading the way a movie thriller keeps you watching through your fingers even while you're covering your eyes.
Rumi's father plans, pushes, punishes - anything to get Rumi to the next level. That central conflict emerges out of Lalwani's unconventional thinking about giftedness. She plainly does not believe that the prodigy has been touched by God. Something more is going on than we see in the North American preoccupation with X-Men, Heroes and other geeks.
"There is a fascination, straight away, with people who are gifted. Normally, we think of a math prodigy as a human calculator who goes beyond mortal limits, but Rumi is very human. That fact raises the whole issue of nature versus nurture. Is genius a matter of genetics or what you do as parents?"
When asked what part of the Gifted story she relates to, Lalwani won't say much. She was born in Kota, a town in northern India, and her family moved to Cardiff when she was 18 months old. She went to Oxford to study medicine, but was thrown out for not getting anything done, as she puts it. Her literary leanings played a huge role in that.
"I obviously had no idea what I had taken on. I was spending a lot more time writing poetry - it's short, manageable and you can a get a reaction to it - than going to the dissection theatre."
She transferred to Bristol, where she took a degree in English literature and directed a series of plays before taking a post-graduate course in journalism. That set her in motion in her first career as a documentary filmmaker. She spent seven years at the BBC making films on subjects as disparate as Giorgio Armani's influence on Hollywood, altitude sickness and incarceration around the world.
"Documentary fuses my love of film and my love of storytelling. I like to ask intrusive questions, and I'm fascinated with irrelevant detail. Documentary harnesses all that."
Don't worry about the sophomore slump or the pressure that you'd assume would set in when writing a follow-up to an acclaimed debut novel.
"It's not anywhere near the level of being crippling. If anything, it's been lovely to be an unknown and get the work seen in this way."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
On Fiction as psychology
On being Booker long listed
On giftedness math vs. musicians
GIFTED by Nikita Lalwani (Bond Street/Doubleday), 273 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Talk about a pushed child. Nikita Lalwani's Booker-long-listed debut novel tracks a young math prodigy, the daughter of Indian immigrants in Wales, who her parents are certain is destined for stardom. Problem is, Rumi's brilliant but also a typical teenager with interests beyond her next math class.
Gifted is drenched in dread, the kind that's fuelled by family tensions. Dad Mahesh wants to keep Rumi focused on the numbers, but mum Shreene isn't so sure. When deep love collides with rising expectations and teen rebellion, trouble looms. Lalwani handles Mahesh's simmering rage with near psychotherapeutic skill - and I mean that in a good way.
When the young teenager is plunged into a university community, the stage is set for even deeper conflict.
Don't be put off by the math angle. Gifted keeps you in its grip in large part because Lalwani conveys Rumi's passion for numbers without making the story inaccessible.
It also works because the race politics are handled so subtly (Rumi is an outsider in more ways than one) and because Lalwani understands the perils of pushing a prodigy. One of the primary challenges of parenting involves learning how to nurture a child's talent without crushing the child.