Most of this intriguing literary thriller, The Caretaker by A. X. Ahmad, takes place in the off-season on the island of Martha’s Vineyard and in the Boston and Cambridge area, where the author (now in Washington, DC) attended MIT, so there are many familiar references for readers familiar with Massachusetts, but also an added layer of difference – a slight foreignness – because the places are seen through the eyes of the main character, Ranjit Singh, a Sikh from India – ex-Indian military – who has been in the U.S. for under three years.
Ranjit (pronounced with the “a” as in “arm” and the “i” as in “it”, emphasis on the first syllable) and his family have struggled to start a new life in the U.S. after a career disgrace in the military. For the past six months on Martha’s Vineyard, Ranjit worked as an independent landscaper, but now winter is coming on, the tourists have left, and it looks as though he will be forced back to working in his wife’s uncle’s cramped Cambridge shop. So when the wife of a popular African-American senator he did landscaping for offers him a job keeping an eye on their expensive house during the off-season, he leaps at the chance to stay on the island.
When he lands a second caretaking job on the strength of the senator’s reference, things seem to be looking up for Ranjit, his unhappy wife Preetam, and his Americanized young daughter Shanti. The prejudice and suspicion that his dark skin, beard, and turban engendered in parts of Boston he has infrequently encountered on Martha’s Vineyard, where there is a longstanding colony of African-American elite and a tradition of what the author describes as “the island’s easy tolerance.”
From this somewhat hopeful beginning, the story covers a lot of ground in 10½ hours of audio (or just under 300 pages) including flashbacks to Ranjit’s time as an army captain on the Siachen Glacier – a high-altitude Himalayan battleground on the disputed border of India and Pakistan – and problems mount quickly for Ranjit, who hadn’t realized how expensive life on the island would be. (Now he understands why most of the foreign migrant workers leave in the winter.) Amid a rash of burglaries on the island, the senator’s house is broken into, but this break-in doesn’t fit the pattern. In the senator’s house, the thieves seemed to be looking for something in particular. When they don’t find it, they decide Ranjit must have it. Now they need to find Ranjit.
Sam Dastor, a British actor, narrates the audiobook; he was surprisingly hard to find information about. He was born in 1941 in Mumbai (known to the rest of the world as Bombay, at the time), and has played roles both of Indians and of Englishmen. This explains how he does the voices of the Indian characters in The Caretaker so convincingly, while the American accents seem a little less natural. The rest of the book is narrated with a British inflection that is very well suited to the story. The women’s voices (Ranjit’s wife and the senator’s wife) verge on the falsetto and, unfortunately, makes the American-inflected voice of Ranjit’s spirited nine-year-old daughter Shanti really grating in a way I couldn’t put my finger on, until I read the AudioFile review which called it “singsong” and that’s it, exactly. In the end, I decided, the excellence of the male voices (which make up the bulk of the story) and the rest of the narration, outweighed the shortcomings in the female voices, but I wouldn’t recommend The Caretaker to someone venturing into audiobooks for the first time.
I enjoyed The Caretaker as a thriller-style variation on the Indian-immigrant-to-America theme. The numerous Indian references are easy to understand from context or get explained. Even though, as in most thrillers, some of the plot points seem a little unbelievable and there are (inevitably?) a couple of sex-in-times-of-danger scenes, the author brings in issues of undocumented immigrants, international politics, personal ethics, race relations, Sikh religious beliefs, patriotism, and the delicate balance of individual initiative and subservience in military and public service – without slowing down the action of the book too much.
Over all, the book’s themes are dark and complex, and the distinctions between good characters and bad characters are, at times, murky, which would be why this book is billed as a “literary” thriller. (By the standards of the American thriller genre, the guy in the turban who looks like he might be Arabic is probably going to be the bad guy, not the main character.) It’s not literary enough to make this a personal favorite, but the author has made a successful leap into popular fiction and I would happily listen to The Caretaker‘s sequel, which I would bet is in the works.
Listen to an excerpt from The Caretaker from Macmillan Audio here.
Read the AudioFile Magazine review of The Caretaker here.
Dastor, Sam (narr.)
10.5 hours on 9 CDs
$39.99 US/$45.99 CAN