The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad is a debut thriller involving scandal, political corruption, and men with pasts they would prefer not to revisit (available May 21, 2013).
In A.X. Ahmad’s masterful, page-turner of a debut thriller, The Caretaker, Ranjit Singh is a disgraced captain of the Indian army who finds himself living with his wife and daughter on Martha’s Vineyard, eking out a living as a summer gardener, and wondering how they will survive the winter.
He stares across the road at the cold, angry ocean. When he first came to the island with his wife and daughter six months ago, the water was warm and shimmering, the beaches were lined with parked cars, and long-tailed kites fluttered in the hot sky. All summer and into the fall he’d worked as a landscaper, feeling his unused muscles stretch and harden, feeling the hot sun beat down on him, and felt a kind of peace.
But now winter is upon them and the tourists are all gone. The ice- cream parlors and clam shacks have closed, and the migrant workers— the Jamaicans and Bulgarians and Czechs—have left. Even the sky feels like a gray bowl jammed over the island.
Worse, all the landscaping jobs have ended. For the millionth time Ranjit wonders how he is going to survive the winter months. Food and gas here are so expensive, and lately, the furnace in their old house has been cutting out abruptly. If it dies, he just won’t have the money to get it fixed.
He needs to find another job soon, or else he’ll have to return to Boston and work in Lallu Singh’s cramped, overheated Indian store, and the thought of going back there makes him sick.
His prayers are answered in the form of a lucrative caretaking job for the summer home of a well-connected U.S. senator, who soon hooks him up with more caretaking jobs on the island. Ranjit’s family will be able to eat and pay their rent through the harsh months ahead, but it may not be enough to ease the strains of a troubled marriage. His wife, Preetam, has been miserable ever since they left Boston for a new beginning on the Vineyard. Despite their growing estrangement, Ranjit perseveres, cares for the luxurious homes of others, and takes comfort in his beloved daughter Shanti.
When the furnace dies in their modest rental, the family seeks warmth and shelter in the senator’s unoccupied second home, assuming no one will mind...an assumption that quickly grows both complicated and dangerous.
Thanks to the senator’s back room dealings, Ranjit and his family are inadvertently swept into an international conspiracy they don’t understand. When Preetam and Shanti are detained by the INS, Ranjit must figure out what’s going on so that he can stop their deportation to a country where their lives may be endangered as a result of the military scandal that sent them running to America in the first place. In beautifully wrought flashbacks, Ranjit revisits his old life serving in the army of his homeland.
They wait, heads down, watching the post through binoculars. Above them snow blows off the ragged peaks of the Sia Kangri and clouds flit through the sky, casting patches of shadow that alternate with sparkling sunshine. Existence up here is reduced to light and dark, to something elemental; no wonder the Hindus believe that these mountains are the abode of the gods.
Their reverie is broken by the hum of engines. Two planes fly in from the east, silver specks high in the blue sky.
The men grow tense. Knowing Sergeant Khandelkar, he will have crept as close as possible to the enemy position, and the Captain prays that he will be spared by the falling bombs.
The story grows heated as the senator’s wife Anna allies herself with Ranjit, or so he thinks. The longer you read this emotionally rich, suspenseful novel, the harder it will be to put it down, as the surprises keep coming until the very end.
Full disclosure: A.X. Ahmad began this novel as homework for my fiction writing workshop a few years ago, when he appeared in my class as a former architect intent upon remaking himself as a writer. When I learned that his book would be published, I felt the pride of a teacher whose star student had made good. Now, having read the novel in its entirety, I am more than proud; I am impressed. We have an excellent new novelist in our midst.
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Katia Lief is an author of thrillers, including Next Time You See Me and You Are Next. She also teaches fiction writing at the New School in Manhattan.
Read all posts by Katia Lief for Criminal Element.