Amulya Malladi's gemlike first novel has a provocative, almost absurd concept -- it's a love story framed by the horrifying Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India, in 1984. In the midst of that disaster we meet Anjali, who barely escapes after being abandoned by her unfaithful husband, Prakash. Sixteen years later, when most of Fresh Air takes place, the Bhopal legacy persists; Anjali has divorced Prakash (an act that her class- and face-obsessed parents deeply resent), remarried, and had a son, whose lungs are deteriorating rapidly. When Anjali and Prakash spot each other one day at a market, a long thread of memories, fears, and old resentments begins unspooling. "Prakash had no idea what we had been through," Anjali says, "and how much he was to blame."
Melodramatic? You bet. Built on too-familiar notions about womanhood, fidelity, and family? That, too. But the quality of Malladi's writing elevates Fresh Air well above standard-issue book-club fodder, and her strong control over plot helps her avoid the overwritten narrative drift that plagues most first novels. The prose in A Breath of Fresh Air is economical, more Raymond Carver than Bharati Mukherjee; shifting between the voices of Anjali, her second husband, Sandeep, and Prakash, the first-person narrations offer no more description than is necessary and no more dialogue than we need. Benign conversations about sex, family, history, and death gain heft as the novel progresses, and the three main characters achieve a surprising amount of depth for all the book's simplicity. It's Anjali's story, but Prakash's anxiety over his failed marriage creates some of the novel's best-rendered moments (his fixation on his army uniform; his sputtering, passive-aggressive speech).
The end result of this dynamic is easy to figure out. (The sick child is a metaphor for the past; the book is about letting go of the past: Take a guess at what happens.) But Carver's dynamics were simple, too. The trip is what matters. Plainly told, Malladi's story is a fine study of the tenuous control we have over love and memory.