Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023. Chetna Maroo's tender and moving debut novel about grief, sisterhood, a teenage girl's struggle to transcend herself – and squash

Eleven-year-old Gopi has been playing squash since she was old enough to hold a racket. When her mother dies, her father enlists her in a quietly brutal training regimen, and the game becomes her world.  

Slowly, she grows apart from her sisters. Her life is reduced to the sport, guided by its rhythms: the serve, the volley, the drive, the shot and its echo. But on the court, she is not alone. She is with her pa. She is with Ged, a 13-year-old boy with his own formidable talent. She is with the players who have come before her. She is in awe. 

The Booker Prize 2023
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Chetna Maroo

Chetna Maroo

About the Author

Chetna Maroo was born in Kenya and lives in London. Her stories have appeared in anthologies and have been published in the Paris Review, the Stinging Fly and the Dublin Review
More about Chetna Maroo

Skilfully deploying the sport of squash as both context and metaphor, Western Lane is a deeply evocative debut about a family grappling with grief, conveyed through crystalline language which reverberates like the sound “of a ball hit clean and hard…with a close echo”

— The Booker Prize 2023 judges

Watch our interview with Chetna Maroo

Chetna Maroo on writing Western Lane

‘It took three years. I write slowly, the first pages in longhand, then typing. I usually try to get each sentence and paragraph sounding right before I go on, reading and editing from the beginning of the story. My own process seems unwise to me because I know I’ll eventually cut sections that I’ve spent weeks or months going over, but I have no other way. I have to trust that the work will benefit in the end from the rhythm and slow quality of this attention. 

In the novel we see the world through the eyes of eleven-year-old Gopi. She and her sisters have recently lost their mother. Their Pa is bereft and struggling to parent his daughters. At the same time, the girls’ aunt and uncle watch the family, hoping to help Pa by taking one of the girls to raise as their own. As I was writing, I was feeling my way. I didn’t have a plot or outline for the whole novel, but I had a sense that the story would turn on this one question: would Pa bring himself to let one of his daughters go?  

I write at my desk at home. To my left is a wardrobe, to my right above my desk the exhibition poster from the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Tove Jansson retrospective, showing Moomintroll standing in an open window looking out into the dark.’  

Read the full interview here

Western Lane by Chetna Maroo

Nina Wadia reads from Western Lane

Why you should read Western Lane, according to our judges

‘Western Lane is a mesmerising novel about how silence can reverberate within a family in the aftermath of grief. The story unfolds on a squash court; the reader quickly learns how sport can act as a balm for the living. It is also about sisterhood, and about the love that remains after a devastating loss.  

‘The language in this novel is truly something to be savoured. Western Lane contains crystalline prose that also feels warm and tender, which can be a difficult balance to strike.  

‘Bereavement is something which we will all experience one day in some shape or form, and the complexity of familial dynamics is another universal theme which Western Lane explores with great sincerity and depth of feeling.’

Chetna Maroo at the Booker Prize shortlist announcement

What the critics said

Ivy Pochoda, The New York Times

‘The beauty of Maroo’s novel lies in that unfolding, the narrative shaped as much by what is on the page as by what’s left unsaid. In the aftermath of their mother’s death, a strangulated silence envelops the house Gopi shares with her older sisters, Mona and Khush. They struggle to manage their grief under the suspicious gaze of their close-knit Gujarati community, with no help from their distant and distracted father.’

Claire Allfree, The Times

‘It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Open a novel with a dead mother, then have a daughter left behind find a compensatory solace in the rigour and beauty of sport. Yet like the space inhabited by that missing ball, this quiet, elegantly compressed coming-of-age novel, just 160 pages long, operates most powerfully in the gaps outside the plot. What’s more, Chetna Maroo defies the memo when it comes to what novels about immigrant families ought to do.’

Danny Denton, The Irish Times

‘In the act of making books, writers make choices on every line, with every word. This is a debut in which Chetna Maroo gets every choice right, even the riskier ones. It reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut (A Pale View of Hills) in that sense, and it has the same quality of being so calm, so confident, so close to the profound and yet rooted in real experience. Think also Marilynne Robinson, and Ocean Vuong (at his very best). The writing is beautiful and wise; the feeling both hauntological and deeply human.’

Western Lane by Chetna Maroo