Liam Pieper

Discovering what themes and stories fascinate writers is interesting, isn’t it? Writers often say that ‘human nature’ fascinates them, but within that umbrella term there are layers and paths and tangents and enough differences to keep a good writer busy for a very long time. And if you read enough of a writer’s work you come to recognise the themes that intrigue them the most. Although Sweetness and Light is the first of Liam Pieper’s books I’ve read, it is such a superb examination of the darkness humans can contain – and how ordinary and insurmountable that darkness can be – that it’s clear the struggle between despair and hope is one of Pieper’s fascinations.

Connor has lived in India for most of his adult life. He’s a grifter, running a diving business as a front for his real money-maker: seducing and fleecing white tourists for his boss, Baba. Although Connor knows this life can’t last forever, he isn’t prepared for it to abruptly unravel when his latest mark, a middle-aged American tourist, disappears on a dive and the local police arrest him. Baba offers to arrange Connor’s release – for a price. In the course of the task Baba assigns him, Connor meets Sasha, an American who has come to India to find meaning in her life. Connor knows a mark when he sees one, so he joins Sasha on the journey to the ashram were she works. But this decision means Connor is now also on the run from Baba, and the ashram is as safe a place as he can find until he can figure out how to leave the country.

Sweetness and Light is a book that emanates dread. It lurks behind Connor’s tenuous employment in the village, and in his childhood home, where his father, laid off from his job at the Newcastle steel works, covers his sense of failure with alcoholism and a belief that Connor is the next Kieren Perkins. It underlines Sasha’s childhood as the daughter of an alcoholic single mother – her father having committed suicide – and her marriage to a cold, very wealthy man. And it emphasises just how out of place these two white people are in a country so riven by poverty and inequality they can never quite be sure how welcome their presence is. Because, for all that Connor has tried to fit in –­ learnt the language, followed the local way of life – and for all that Sasha has tried to help – money, medicines, teaching the kids at the ashram ­– they are still foreigners who haven’t experienced the hardships Connor is trying to emulate and Sasha is trying to solve. And while Connor and Sasha find some relief from this uncertainty in each other’s company, they remain strangers, still dealing with their personal traumas in a situation in which they are out of their depth.

The story Pieper builds in this incredibly accomplished novel is unexpected and deeply affecting. Sweetness and Light deftly explores privilege and poverty, love and lust, belonging and exclusion, and examines how trauma can shape a personality and how, for some people, life is less about self-discovery than it is about self-preservation.

Sweetness and Light, Liam Pieper. Hamish Hamilton. 336pp. $32.99