“There were two different realities in the room,” writes Gurnaik Johal in the title story of We Move, a debut collection of such precocity and aplomb that it stands comparison to the likes of Junot Díaz and Bryan Washington. In Johal’s stories, different realities are always colliding and occasionally merging into one. This is busy fiction: he alternates viewpoints, builds his effects by accretion of brief details, rarely staying with one character or one scene for more than a page.
A striking example is the opening story, Arrival, which last month won the Galley Beggar Press short story prize. (I was one of the judges.) It’s barely 1,500 words long – five pages in the book – but it packs in multitudes. It brings to life a couple, Chetan and Aanshi, who live near Heathrow, have no car and let friends use their drive to save on airport parking. When one acquaintance doesn’t return for her car, they tentatively begin to use it as their own. Johal weaves the way this changes their lives with how they cope as the woman’s fiance turns up to reclaim the vehicle and their speculation on why she didn’t come back. It’s a perfect miniature.
Most of the stories are set in the same area – Southall – in what the blurb calls “multicultural London”, where a community rubs shoulders and characters peek into one another’s stories, giving the sense of something larger. Johal covers all the voices: not just young men like him, but also mothers, sisters and older men, sometimes in the same story. One of the best pieces here is Be More Roy, where Mont and Miriam are inhabitants of a nursing home who come to believe they were in a relationship together in their youth. Their new friendship brings them pleasure, despite being based on a past that never existed.
Even when Johal sticks to one viewpoint, there is an embracing empathy on display. In Leave to Remain, Gujan takes his grandfather out to have his photograph taken for official documents and they end up cycling the streets, going to the pub and sharing a bucket of chicken wings.
Leave to Remain runs to four pages, Be More Roy to eight. Brevity is Johal’s way, making stories that bristle with life while using the minimum information needed for the reader to grasp his meaning. So we get brisk, efficient dialogue, sideways references that describe characters without describing them (“the front door had to be taken off its hinges to let the coffin in”) and precise, evocative imagery: the “white noise” at the bottom of a cappuccino cup; a window being opened and closed to expel smoke, looking from outside like “a small struggling wing”.
Johal’s virtuosity would be impressive in a writer of any age and experience, let alone one who is publishing his debut at the age of 23. (Although his insights are universal, I did feel a generation gap opening when a reference appeared to a character having Match Attax football cards, which I buy for my children.)
Occasionally, the extremely compact approach works less well. The Twelfth of Never, which spans three centuries in five pages, is oblique to the point of obscurity; in The Red River, a tender and funny relationship story is weakened rather than enhanced by jumping back and forward in short bursts rather than telling it straight.
Nonetheless this is a collection to celebrate, from a new talent of the kind that comes along rarely. To describe Johal as a writer to watch would be true but misleading, implying that we need to wait for better things to come. Better to say that he’s a writer to read now.