First, an important fact: ‘pukur’ is the Bengali word for a pool or pond, and the dark, brooding body of water, and the meanings that it bears for the individuals and the community that surround it, is at the centre of Ken Powell’s extremely fine coming-of-age novel set in rural Bangladesh; a position it shares with 12 year old Sophie Shepherd, the bereaved, vulnerable, abandoned, physically and emotionally wounded hero of the book, whose healing and growth the narrative charts with immense understanding, tenderness and intuitive sympathy.
Sophie’s story begins with the loss of her parents, and the disintegration of her life in the early chapters of the book makes for sometimes harrowing reading in a forbidding start to what is essentially a novel of joyful if hard-won self-realisation. Powell’s great coup here, and what lifts ‘The Pukur’ into a different league from your typical YA dilemmas-of-teenage-life, is that Sophie’s recovery and development take place in the to her utterly alien society of rural Bangladesh, where she learns life as a ’third-culture kid’, in a deeply personal amalgamation of British and Asian experience mediated by the loving wisdom of women. What shines through here is Powell’s self-evident love for and understanding of Bangladesh (where he lived for a number of years), and his descriptions of the country make enticingly fine writing. There’s also real subtlety here – Sophie’s persistently difficult relationship with her prickly Uncle Joshua (for whom Powell is careful to show deep sympathy) enters a new dimension when they briefly travel to Dhaka and re-encounter British culture in the excruciating form of the local ex-patriates’ club.
And Powell saves the best for last – the novel comes to a near-apocalyptic climax in the waters of the pukur when Sophie is faced with a challenge that will define her and her life. I won’t say more about the denouement – but urge you to read this richly imagined and beautifully executed coming-of-age story.