Sometimes characters in novels begin to feel so real it hurts to let them go. This is especially true in Sandip Roy’s novel “Don’t Let Him Know” which is a story that hopscotches back and forth in time through generations of a family. By the end of the book, this multi-layered view of the lives of Avinash, his wife Romola and their son Amit became so fully realized and familiar I was disappointed the novel wasn’t longer. Each chapter focuses on a particular character at a crucial point in their lives. The story isn’t told chronologically, but I didn’t ever feel confused about where I was or who I was reading about. Rather, I felt this gave a deeper understanding of these characters while they made critical decisions about their future. It allowed both the future and the past to inform me about their present. This is a technique similar to a great novel I read some time ago named “Send Me” by Patrick Ryan. The story of “Don’t Let Him Know” also traverses nations moving back and forth between India and America as this family grows and changes through time.
At the centre of this novel is a crucial secret which Romola discovers in a letter soon after she marries Avinash and they move to America so he can complete his studies and research. Their marriage was arranged soon after Avinash’s father death. Both feel compelled to settle for a life which is expected of them despite Romola’s dream of living in England after reading classic English literature like “Alice in Wonderland” or Avinash’s desire to pursue his prior romantic entanglement. Avinash eventually moves with his wife back to India so he can work and take care of his family (including his ingenious and endearing 94 year old grandmother). They give birth to a son named Amit who also eventually moves to America to go to university, but he decides to remain there where he meets his wife and has a son of his own. At the beginning of the novel we meet Romola in her old age when she has moved back to America to join Amit. Here Romola finds a sense of liberation when she finally feels she doesn’t have to follow the script which was written for her life. Instead “Romola felt as if she was acting in her own play.” The transgressive act of setting out to finally eat the McDonald’s hamburger she always dreamed of proceeds an even more assertive act at the novel’s end which allows her to reclaim her past and break through the boundaries of convention.
“Don’t Let Him Know” is a sensitively-told story that confidently leads you through multiple generations. It explores the ways families can both support and oppress one another. There is a fascinating way that perspective shifts between the chapters from the internal to the external. So while I felt incredibly sympathetic with Romola in a chapter about her romance with a future Bollywood star, my feelings changed to extreme anger at how she severely deals with her servant’s daughter who is accused of stealing in another chapter. In this way, the reader is given a more dynamic nuanced understanding of character than in novels which focus only on one character’s point of view. This novel also gives a unique view of the repercussions of a life lived as a closeted gay man in India. But more than anything it tells deeply immersive, funny, moving and relatable stories about characters that I grew to love and care about.