This debut novel aims certainly succeeds in its aim to raise awareness about the way a marriage can be used by some people in India to extort money from the family of the bride; in 2013 over 8,000 women in India were murdered for a dowry despite the fact that dowries are illegal.
The first few pages set the scene. Avantika and her husband have all but bankrupted themselves to get daughter Uma married to Vijay, son of a wealthy and powerful family. But then Vijay's mother, Madhu, who has already pushed the cost of the wedding as high as it can go, asks for more money.
Uma, living with Vijay and his family, is trapped. She can't go back to her parents: she would be a shamed woman and never able to marry again. But she is entirely in Madhu's power. Angry words and humiliation slowly escalate into physical abuse. Even when she has a daughter, the bullying continues. And no one is talking about Vijay's first wife, or about his present girlfriend. It seems no one can help her.
Carefully plotted, the tension in this novel builds to an exciting climax.
The story is told from the perspectives of nine women. Of these, Alice, Vijay's English business partner and mistress, is a distinct voice, perpetually angry at the sexist behaviour of 'dickhead' men. But the Indian women, though they have different back stories and different issues, all seem to have the same interests (from the evidence of this novel virtually all Indian women are obsessed with food, TV soap operas, and what other people think of them) and the same voice.
This was the thing I found most challenging about this book. It is written in a very 'flat' writing style. Issues are explained and dissected very clearly, whether in descriptions or in dialogue or in the thoughts of the characters. But there is no emotional punch to the writing. For example, when Nilambari recalls drinking lassi spiked with cannabis which resulted in her being subjected to a mass rape "She realised she was naked and her body ached everywhere. ... Nilambari let out a pained howl as the memories returned to her .... After lamenting for a while she realised she had to get away before anyone came back." An incredibly traumatic event is written up in a very matter of fact way as if by a disinterested observer in an academic journal rather than the character who suffered the events. Whilst not seeking the purple prose of a Gothic novel, I found this style rather cold. If I had woken up naked and realised I had been raped I doubt I would have been capable of thinking in sentences, let alone well-formed sentences like these.
Perhaps it is the way books are written in India.
But to an English reader the way the characters seemed to analyse their own predicaments in such a detached manner made them seem two-dimensional. Even though Madhu's back story was chronicled, including her humiliation when she was a new bride and the abortions forced on her and her terrible insecurity when she became a young widow, she still emerged as a pantomime villain. Uma had victim written all over her; the fact that she had been working as a nurse before her marriage seemed to have no impact whatsoever when she was entrapped by, among other things, her own traditional values. Avantika her mum thought only of her status in society. Amrita was the personification of vengeance. Although most of the characters changed in the way they behaved, the only character who showed signs of evolving attitudes was Vijay's sister Charu.
As a result, although I sympathised with Uma's plight, I didn't empathise with Uma.
One of the difficulties facing a book set in a foreign country is the language. There a lots of Gujerati (?) words in this book that I didn't know before, for example beti, lakh, baa, bapuji; foreign words appear on almost every page. Some authors might try to translate them, which could easily ruin the flow of the narrative, but this author allows the reader to understand them from the context and this is mostly very successful (although I did long for a translation when whole sentences appeared).
This is an intricately plotted book with plenty of tension which opens a window into the abuses which can occur when appearances matter more than being good.
September 2016; 434 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57