by Celina Baljeet Basra
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Pub Date 14 Nov 2023 | Archive Date 07 Nov 2023
Astra Publishing House, Astra House
—New York Times
—New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice/Staff Pick
★Publishers Weekly ★Bookpage ★Booklist
In a rural village of Punjab, India, a moony young man crouches over his phone in a rapeseed field near his family’s cabbage farm. His name is Happy Singh Soni, and he’s watching YouTube clips of his favorite film, Bande à Part by Jean-Luc Godard. In fact, Happy is often compared to a young Sami Frey by the imaginary journalists that keep him company while he uses the outhouse. Pooing, as he says, “en plein air.” When he’s not sleeping among the cabbages and eating his mother’s sugary rotis, Happy dreams of becoming an actor, one who plays the melancholy roles—sad, pretty boys, rare in Indian cinema. There are macho leads and funny boys en masse, but if you’re looking for depth and vulnerability, you must make your own heroes.
Then comes Wonderland, an eccentric facsimile of Disneyland that steadily buys up the local farms, rebranding the community’s traditional way of life. Happy works a dead-end job at the amusement park, biding his time and saving money for a clandestine journey to Europe, where he’ll finally land a breakout role. Little does he know that his immigration is being coordinated by a transnational crime syndicate. After a nightmarish passage to Italy, Happy still manages to find relief in food and fantasy, even as he is forced into ever-worsening work conditions over a debt he allegedly accrued in transit. But his daydreams grow increasingly at odds with his bleak reality, one shared by so many migrant workers disenfranchised by the systems that depend on their labor.
At turns funny and poetic, sunny and tragic, Happy is a daring feat of postmodern literature, a polyphonic novel about the urgent, lovely coping mechanisms created by generations of diasporic people. Set against the enmeshed crises of global migration and the politics of labor within the food industry, Celina Baljeet Basra’s luminous debut argues for the things that are essential to human survival: food, water, a place to lay one’s head, but also pleasure, romance, art, and the inalienable right to a vivid inner life.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 12 members
Happy by Celina Baljeet Basra is a captivating and daring debut novel that skillfully explores human complexities of the global migration crisis. Set in a rural village in Punjab, India, the story follows the dreams and struggles of Happy Singh Soni, a cinephile with aspirations of becoming an actor.
What sets this novel apart is its unique narrative format. Rather than following a traditional novel structure, the story is mostly presented through Happy's notebooks, filled with an eclectic mix of notes, songs, poems, half-written screenplays, and conversations with imaginary people. We are also given perspectives from his family and friends, which add to the world building and plot of the novel. This unconventional approach added both depth and richness to the storytelling, making it an absorbing read.
One of the standout aspects of Happy is the charismatic voice of the protagonist. As Happy's thoughts and desires are vividly portrayed, I was drawn into the whimsical and chimerical landscape of his mind. Basra's lyrical prose beautifully captures Happy's quest for meaning and his determination to find light in the face of life's hardships.
The novel deftly explores themes such as migration, identity, and the politics of labour in the food industry. As Happy traverses the peculiar Wonderland amusement park, which threatens the village's traditional way of life, he unknowingly becomes entangled in a transnational crime syndicate that manipulates and takes him away from home to having him working at a fried fish restaurant and a radish farm in Italy. Happy's journey takes an unexpected and dramatic turn when a new worker, Zhivago, arrives at the farm.
Basra successful unveils the challenges and resilience of migrant workers and her storytelling strikes a harmonious balance between comedy, poetry, and tragedy, creating a narrative that is both thought-provoking and emotionally resonant.
Throughout the book, Basra imbues her characters with a sense of humanity and depth. From Happy's hilarious 'Loo interviews' and whimsical moments of seeking meaning in Godard's mysterious Indian Bird of Death, and heart-wrenching moments like the one at the Trevi Fountain (make sure you have a tissue box at hand!). Basra powerfully captures the struggles, dreams, and pursuit of pleasure, romance, and art within the context of challenging circumstances.
Ultimately, Happy is a geniusly crafted and timely novel that addresses pressing social issues with depth and compassion. Basra's polyphonic and playful narrative as well as the ability to shed light on the human experience in the face of adversity make this debut novel a standout work in contemporary literature. Celina Baljeet Basra's exceptional writing promises a bright future for her as a captivating new voice in the literary world. I eagerly anticipate her future works.
Very grateful to Netgalley and Astra Publishing House for the opportunity to read this ARC. #PudseyRecommends
One of the most creative debuts I have read. Happy will be one the characters that will stay with me. He will make you smile and break your heart.
Happy is a novel about the aspirations of the migrating populace, who are ready to suffer subhuman situations for a chance to acquire a brighter future, and about how the powerful exploit them.
Ouch. The big ouch.
I am so thankful to Astra House Publishing, Celina Baljeet Basra, and Netgalley for granting me physical and digital access to this heartbreaking saga about a young man who dreams for the rest of the world and whose optimism bites him where it hurts. Happy is set to hit shelves on November 14, 2023.
Happy is a tale about an eighteen-year-old boy named Happy Singh Soni, who aspires to move to Europe and become a famous movie star. He's obsessed with cataloging every moment on his YouTube channel and within his cinephile-motivated notebooks. Growing up in Punjab, India on his family's radish farm limits those dreams into becoming reality, but he won't stop until he's breathed Italian air.
In between realistic retellings, readers are curated imaginary sequences from the beautiful imagination of Happy, detailing his desires to be an actor on each page. After months of saving up his measly salary, he affords a unique passage to Italy through hiking mountain peeks, stuffed into moving vehicles, and a more eccentric means of travel. Once he arrives, he's not greeted with the Italy of his dreams. Still, rather a capitalistic and impoverished working nightmare, Happy somehow finds the positive in it all, romanticizing the lodging, the bitterness, and the interactions he comes to cherish as friendships.
This is a beautiful but awfully sad tale because I wanted so much for Happy, but Happy was content with it all.
Thank you to Netgalley and the Publisher's for this Advanced Readers Copy of Happy by Celina Baljeet Basra!
I enjoyed "Happy," but I think some might find the narrator's voice annoying or hard to get into. His story was touching and inspiring, and sheds light on migrant workers experiences as well as their dreams. Happy's story is a tearjerker but I think a very timely story and unique take on migration and migrant workers.
Happy was a great, interesting read. I liked the different points of view at times and the writing style kept me engaged. I appreciated the insight into migrant workers' lives.
I'm quite glad, that i had the opportunity to discover this jem through Netgalley and also thanks to Astra Publishing House for the ARC.
This book took me by surprise.
The main charakter Happy captured me from the first page and I loved his/the whimsical style of storytelling. It is non linear and sometimes confusing, but in a good way. It is funny and at the same time there is the underlying motive of emigration/immigration. This serious issue is mixed into Happys narration very playfully, without being thoughtless.
To sum it up, I recommend 'Happy' and hope my colleague from our english department will order it in until it gets translated to German.