Happy Singh Soni is not, well, happy: He is longing for more. And, given his condition at the outset of Celina Baljeet Basra’s debut novel, why wouldn’t he be? His home, a Punjabi farming village that is being steadily encroached upon by an expanding theme park, is no place for a young man with ambition—of which, make no mistake, Happy has a bountiful platter.

Happy’s primary objective is to travel to Europe and become something befitting his expansive and flighty imagination: perhaps a movie star or a playwright. Constantly updating his résumé, he envisions his future with “a lustrous, luxurious bathroom made entirely of Makrana marble.” This makes him an easy mark for those only too eager to shepherd the dreamer to the Europe of his imagination . . . for a price.

In a very timely manner, Basra makes a potent point about how undocumented workers are frequently abused both economically and physically. After a harrowing journey, Happy finds himself in Italy, working at a radish farm as an undocumented immigrant. His proximity to the Italian film studio Cinecitta makes his goal of stardom feel tantalizingly close, yet it remains every bit as remote as it was in India. He puts on a brave face even while the gap between his dreams and his daily life becomes a virtually unbridgeable chasm.

Although Happy starts out at a leisurely pace, this is just a matter of Basra taking the time to build Happy’s complex character layer upon layer, encouraging the reader to root for her quixotic protagonist. As his life, somewhat predictably, falls short of his lofty ambitions, she manages to keep Happy true to his ideals, rather than having him succumb to cynicism or bitterness.

The book’s unexpected climax is handled so masterfully that it seems, in retrospect, inevitable. The humanity underpinning Happy’s story will speak to anyone with a heart and a dream.

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