The Pizzeria Vesuvio looks like any other Italian restaurant in London – with a few small differences. The chefs who make the pizza fiorentinas are Sri Lankan, and half the kitchen staff are illegal immigrants.
At the centre is Tuli, the restaurant’s charismatic proprietor and resident Robin Hood, who promises to help anyone in need. Welsh nineteen-year-old Nia, haunted by her troubled past, is running from her family. Shan, having fled the Sri Lankan civil war, is desperate to find his.
But when Tuli’s guidance leads them all into dangerous territory, and the extent of his mysterious operation unravels, each is faced with an impossible moral choice.
In a world where the law is against you, how far would you be willing to lie for a chance to live?
*I was sent a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review, big thank you to Penguin and Viking*
You People is a quietly beautiful and devastating novel following Nia, a Welsh and Indian teen and Shan, a Tamil immigrant as they come to terms with their new realities in different ways. While their lives couldn’t be further apart, they cross paths at the Pizzeria Vesuvio, run by the enigmatic Tuli, a resident robin hood and benefactor for those in need. Although the novel is set in 2003, it couldn’t be more relevant in the current political climate, with it’s vital and moving portrayal of the immigrant experience.
The novel is divided between the perspectives of Nia and Shan, and this works so well to tell two equally powerful stories. Nia is a teen who has escaped to London and finally gained her independence after suffering at the hands of her abusive and neglectful mother. I found her narrative to be so compelling and real, with her conflicting feelings of love and guilt as well as her genuine desire to help people when she gets involved with Tuli’s mysterious business. Shan’s was just as moving, if not more as he comes to the UK illegally after instability in his home country of Sri Lanka. I felt for him as he was so haunted by the fact that he left behind his wife Devaki, and his young son Karu and he doesn’t know if they’re safe.
There’s a particularly poignant moment when Shan sees a young boy and his mother on the bus, whom he usually sees on his daily commute. The boy is a glaring reminder of his son so Shan takes notice of him, on this particular occasion however, the mother has been waiting in hospital for a long time as her son is ill and she lashes out with such vitriol, blaming “you people” for this. The anti immigrant sentiment is clear and this leads Shan to feel humiliated and ask himself what his being there has taken from her.
If I live, does it really mean you will die, lady? If my boy comes here, my small tiger cub, my baby son, does it mean that your sweet boy will die? What if my boy had died there, lady, in my country? What then?
While Shan and Nia’s narratives are open and their motivations are more easily understood, there is one character who remains a mystery even after the novel ends. Tuli, the manager of the restaurant and benefactor for Shan and the other immigrants without legal status, is a hard character to read. On one hand, you want to believe he’s doing everything out of the goodness of his heart but at the same time there is clearly something more going on behind this facade. There always seems to be an undercurrent of tension in the moments he is on the page.
Overall, You People is an introspective and potent story about those on the margins of society and how every single individual has a story. Nikita Lalwani approaches these topics in a thought provoking manner and I am grateful I have read this book.
Until next time,