Liam Pieper’s second novel, Sweetness and Light, is an underbelly tour of India. Told from the perspective of two Westerners, each seeking some form of escape from their lives, searching for a vision of India that probably only exists in the Western consciousness. Liam Pieper’s first novel The Toymaker was underpinned by a central cast of characters with deep secrets, and complex motivations driven by the their pasts. Sweetness and Light lays its character’s cards on the table early and then stands back to see how their lives play out.
The book opens with Connor, an Australian grifter living in a small beach town in Western India. Shanti is a tourist trap run by a local crimelord called Baba who takes a cut of every scam going. Connor has two rackets – the semi-legal dive operation that he runs out to a local wreck, and then the romancing of single, vulnerable women which he uses to steal credit card and other identity details. When these two operations collide and go fatally wrong, Connor is put in deep debt to Baba. At the same time, New Yorker Sasha has paid a fortune to stay in a gated Ashram outside of Chennai. After helping to save the life of a young local girl, she is welcomed in to the inner circle of the Ashram as a doctor, although not all is what it seems with either Sasha or the guru who runs the Ashram.
The first two thirds of the book sketches out these two situations and serves to bring the characters together for the final act. While doing that Pieper digs deep into the traumatic and troubled histories of the two, histories that will inform their actions. Connor grew up in Newcastle, a steel town north of Sydney that went into a depression when the steel industry closed down. Connor’s father, loses his job and from there concentrates all of his misguided and alcohol-fuelled energy on Connor and his potential as an Olympic swimmer, significantly damaging Connor both mentally and physically in the process. Sasha also grew up with a borderline abusive, alcoholic parent in New York but despite this gets herself into a medical degree and a relationship with a wealthy fellow student who is destined to become a surgeon. When the two come together sparks fly and on the final act of the book, Connor on the run from Baba hides out in the ashram with Sasha, much to the disgust of the guru and her followers. More than a little chaos ensues.
After taking on the Holocaust and issues of third world exploitation in The Toymaker, Liam Pieper delivers another really different and intriguing novel in Sweetness and Light. In particular he uses his scenario to explore the relationship between the West and its idea of India through the lens of two damaged but relatable characters. The end is a little messy, feeling a little like cross between wish-fulfilment and the need for a big twist that is not really earned, but despite leaving a bit of a head scratcher, this is a journey worth taking.