Stand Up by Nikesh Shukla

The Blurb On The Back:

Here’s what you need to know about me: I’m seventeen and a comedy god … in waiting.  TBC and all that.  But I know I’m pretty funny.  I have two and a half terms left before going to uni, so if I want to try stand-up, it’s now or never.

More than anything in the world, Madhu wants to be a stand-up comedian, but her parents are rooting for her to do something sensible that involves uni and a law degree.

Just as she thinks they’re probably right, a clip of Madhu goes viral and a comedy legend offers her the chance of a lifetime.  It feels like all her dreams are coming true … until Madhu becomes the punchline.

Can Madhu stand up for what she believes is right and keep everyone she loves laughing?

STAND UP was released in the United Kingdom on 2nd March 2023.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order STAND UP by Nikesh Shukla from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):”>

17-year-old Madhu Krishna is in her final year of studying for her A levels at St Brendan’s Sixth Form and lives with her mum and dad who own and run a small corner shop in Bristol.  Her parents are keen for her to study law at university, believing that she needs a solid career, but Madhu isn’t sure that university is really for her and in reality dreams about being a stand-up comedian.  The only problem is, although she’s got tonnes of material and is always thinking about her act she’s never actually worked up the courage to try it out in front of an audience and the first time she does, she suffers such crippling stage fright that she runs off stage.

Resigned to following her parents’ dreams, everything changes when someone takes a video of her rinsing her friend Shanai’s ex-boyfriend Marvin in the college cafeteria.  The clip goes viral and she gets an invite from her comedy idol, Kareena Patel, to appear on her chat show and perform a 5 minute set of her material and do an interview on the sofa.  With the help of fellow wannabe standup Jazz, she gets her material together and works to overcome her nerves.  But while Kareena is everything that Madhu hoped, the opportunity does not go at all as planned and it isn’t long before she realises that the only thing worse than not being able to tell a joke on stage, is becoming the butt of one in real life … 

Nikesh Shukla’s contemporary YA novel has a sharp-tongued female main character who makes interesting points about race and sexism, including among the British Asian community.  Although the book makes the most of its Bristol setting, the plot is predictable and strains credibility but the big issue is that the comedy routines are flat and unfunny, with Madhu coming across as gobby and mean-spirited, which makes it hard to root for her.

I picked this up as I’ve read Shukla’s previous novels RUN, RIOT and THE BOXER and I think he’s got a sharp ear for dialogue and writes about the experience of non-white people from a variety of different backgrounds in a way that feels fresh and has real insight.  I also picked this up because Madhu first appeared as a character in THE BOXER and I enjoyed the dynamic she had with Sunny (the main character of that book) so wanted to see what her own story looked like.

The good news is that Madhu’s narrative voice is great – wry, angry, sharply observational – I enjoyed the irony she uses when describing her job at a pizza parlour run by Danny (who is only a year older than her) and the customers who frequent it.  I did believe in her as a 17-year-old struggling to find her own way and caught between her parents’ expectations and hopes and what she wants for herself.  Less convincing is her relationship with her sister Meena (who was thrown out of the family home by her father after becoming pregnant and who now lives in London with her Muslim boyfriend).  This is mainly because there just isn’t enough interaction between them on the page to explain Madhu’s guilt for her parents’ actions but also because while I understood Meena’s anger at Madhu’s failure to speak up for her, it felt disproportionate compared to her relationship with her parents and so when the tentative reconciliation comes, it just didn’t seem earned.

Also unconvincing is the relationship between Madhu and Kareena.  I did completely believe in Madhu’s hero-worship of her and how she is genuinely blindsided by what Kareena does to her on her TV show.  However, I equally did not believe quite in why Kareena did it – it is not clear if she has put similar viral stars on her show and if so, if she has ever given them the Jeremy Kyle treatment in the same way and why she thought it would be a ratings winner.  Shukla suggests that it’s unicorn syndrome, which may go some way but there’s not enough interaction with Kareena to understand that so you end up with Madhu’s perception alone and it isn’t enough.

In fact I would have believed it more had Kareena pointed out the obvious, which is that Madhu simply isn’t funny.  The big problem with a book about stand up is that the comedy bits need to be funny and, as Kareena points out, the rinsing that Madhu doles out are heavier on the cruelty than they are on the comedy.  There were a couple of lines that got a chuckle out of me but otherwise the punchlines and routines are all a bit hackneyed and land with a thud and again, you can say that this is because Madhu is still starting out and finding her voice, but even at the end when she is being truer to herself and opening herself up in her comedy, the laughs just aren’t there.

There was an opportunity here for Jazz to help Madhu work on her routines (and equally for Madhu to help him given his dearth of material) but instead he gets stuck with a poor little rich boy storyline (which Madhu constantly gives him grief over) and then as a love interest in a development that is utterly unearned.  This is a shame because I would have been interested in some scenes about Jazz’s experiences given his more privileged background, especially given his estranged relationship with his father who works in Dubai because Madhu does make a point about how Asian parents are always working hard and hustling but never connects the dots when it comes to Jazz’s family.

I think that what made this book so disappointing was that Shukla is so good at conveying location and drawing characters who feel like real teenagers living in Britain today while also incorporating sharp commentary about race, wealth and privilege in messages that I think do resonate with the reader.  As such, although this book did not work for me, I would nevertheless check out what he writes next.  

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