Sweetness and Light
Hamish Hamilton, $32.99 pb, 336 pp
Connor is a thirty-something Australian who bides his time grifting in India. His targets are Western female tourists, whom he describes as ‘talent’, and whom he seduces and fleeces. Connor seems to be escaping something, most likely the upbringing in which his masculinity and personal safety were constantly called into question.
Sasha is an American tourist with an equally bleak back-story. Her marriage has just ended, and she is in India to attend an ashram. Sasha hopes that this experience will deliver her to ‘another level’ of spiritual enlightenment, one she could not achieve in the cacophony of New York City.
These two troubled souls cross paths on a train and begin something resembling a relationship. This connection is threatened by the domineering individuals who have inserted themselves into Connor’s and Sasha’s lives. The couple are menaced by a past that’s never far away.
Sweetness and Light, the fourth book by Melbourne writer Liam Pieper, is a character-driven affair. The sad and sordid world inhabited by the protagonists is evoked with disarming vividness; the unfolding of Connor and Sasha’s relationship, and the danger it faces at every turn, keeps the reader on edge and encourages us to turn the pages.
Admirably, the novel avoids moralising about his protagonists’ actions. This is no easy feat when considering Connor’s transgressions. Sweetness and Light also eschews the kind of glib psychologising that could so easily pervade a narrative such as this.
Substance abuse is a key theme here, as in Pieper’s first book, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year (2014). In Sweetness and Light, the author conveys both the thrills and the ongoing harms wrought by alcohol abuse. Pieper also provides a corrective to the naïve, exoticising cultural narrative of Westerners trekking to India in search of spiritual highs.
As may be evident, the contents of Sweetness and Light are anything but. The title’s irony is a bit too obvious. Nonetheless, Pieper’s book is compelling, crackling as it does with a tension that doesn’t let up.