In a situation hopelessly vulnerable to puns, Rosie Dastgir’s first novel, A Small Fortune (Riverhead, $25.95), has been followed closely by her husband John Gapper’s own debut, A Fatal Debt (Ballantine, $26). The two novels, however, deal in two different currencies: In her psychologically complex story of cultural strains, family connections are skewed by money; in his intricately plotted thriller, lives are poisoned by specious financial derivatives.
“A Small Fortune” is set chiefly in present-day England among people of Pakistani descent. Harris (born Haaris) escaped life in Pakistan many years ago by marrying an Englishwoman and leaving behind the woman he had been contracted to marry. The worst sort of scandal had been averted at the time when his cousin Khalid Ali stepped up to marry the woman himself. He now lives in a poor village with his wife and children. As it happens, Harris’s bright prospects never really panned out, and his British wife, frustrated by his general inadequacy, finally divorced him. Since then, he has been living in the damp, decaying north of England — splendidly and dismally evoked by Dastgir — where he has been exploited by a relentless cousin named Nawaz. In exchange, Harris has become part of Nawaz’s family, which brings him companionship, excellent curries and an audience for the advice he is fond of dispensing. When the final settlement of his divorce brings Harris a check for over 50,000 pounds — a small fortune — he ponders its deployment. His daughter refuses it. She is living in London, also adrift, having dropped out of medical school. Harris laments that she has embraced “the English way of putting freedom and pleasure before family and duty.” But he is scarcely fit to pronounce so dogmatically on that subject. As the novel progresses in deftly evoked scenes and flashes of humor, Dastgir moves further and further into the man’s conscience, his reluctance to grapple with reality, and his very human knack of holding traditional convictions while letting them slide in his actions. When redemption comes, that small fortune plays exactly the proper role.