Today’s book turned out to be a bit of an unexpected read, hence the GSQ format. Drawn in by the delightful cover art and the promise of a book written by Meera Syal (she of The Kumars at Number 42, the Doctor Who episode with the Silurians and various other humorous creative exploits), I requested The House of Hidden Mothers from the publisher via Netgalley with the anticipation that this would be a quirky read. And it was. Sort of. Just not in the way I was expecting. So let’s dive in!
Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Welcome to Little India, East London, where Shyama, aged forty-four, has fallen for a younger man. They want a child together. Welcome to a rural village in India, where young Mala, trapped in an oppressive marriage, dreams of escape.
When Shyama and Mala meet, they help each other realise their dreams. But will fate guarantee them both happiness?… Brimming with warmth, wit and indignation, Meera Syal immerses us in a double story of friendship, family and the lengths women will go to have a child. Crossing between East London and rural India, its universal tale of female triumph over adversity tickles as much as it bites, while asking searching questions about what makes us human.
First off, it was certainly a relief to find out that Syal is as talented at writing as she is at dramatic stuff. This is a well-written book, that deftly entwines two – well, more than two actually, but we’ll get to that in a moment – seemingly unconnected stories and shows enough respect to the characters to ensure that none of them ends up stereotyped or two-dimensional.
There is a lot going on in the book, because both the main female characters – Shyama and Mala – have fully fleshed out tales that carry the main plot. Alongside these two ladies however, is Tara, Shyama’s young adult daughter to whom much of a secondary plotline is devoted, as well as Prem and Sita, Shyama’s parents, who also embody a fully developed plotline involving distant family members who have unlawfully taken up residence in their retirement apartment in India. So all in all, this is a hefty read that doesn’t skim over the trials of its characters.
Underlining the struggles of the characters are the social issues that Syal brings to light – the relative merits and pitfalls of international surrogacy; violence against women in both the UK and India; the struggles of those living in poverty and the ways in which businesses might support or exploit them. There is certainly a lot to consider here and I was impressed with the way that the author has managed to span such a range of characters and situations while keeping the writing tight and relevant.
There’s not a lot that I can think of to fill this section, but if I had to nitpick, the only drawback of having so many fleshed out storylines going at once is the fact that it makes the book very long. I have coined the term “Kindle Heft” to indicate the relative “heaviness” that I ascribe to an ebook as I’m reading, relative to how thick I imagine the print version to be and how tiny the font therein. This one comes out as “hefty”, which means I felt like I was reading for a long time and not getting very far through the
I suppose I expected this book to be lighter in tone than it ended up being. This is not necessarily a negative point, as I did get a lot out of the reading experience, but I did expect this to have a lot more “wit” – as in humour – than was actually present. Essentially, if you’re looking for a light bit of fun, fluffy reading, you won’t be satisfied by this book.
This could have so easily been a book that focused in on the contemporary couple wanting a baby and being faced with fertility issues. That would have produced plenty of material for a standard women’s fiction novel. Because Syal has included both the perspective of a younger generation (in Tara) and an older generation (in Prem and Sita), the book really does give an overall view of the whole infertility experience and the fact that it doesn’t happen in a contextual vacuum. I suppose what I’m saying here is that while this is a “contemporary couple wanting a baby and being faced with fertility issues” kind of book, it’s also a lot more than that – which is something you don’t often get with your general women’s fiction novel.
This turned out to be a much more thought-provoking read than I expected and has duly increased my level of admiration for Meera Syal. I don’t think it will be for everybody, particularly if you are expecting a fun, funny, relaxing-by-the-pool sort of a read, but if you are in the market for a well-developed, multi-plotted tale that mixes contemporary with traditional then I’d definitely recommend adding this one to your list.
Until next time,