We’re having a bit of a change of pace today on the shelf with some historical adult fiction that reads like a memoir, written by an Australian author and set in 1960s India during a time of social upheaval. With India being one of the countries in whose history we are particularly interested (the other, of course, at the moment, being Japan), it would have been remiss of us not to get our collective paws on Black British by Hebe De Souza. We were lucky enough to snag a copy from Ventura Press for review. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
In the turbulent years that follow the British Empire’s collapse in India, rebellious and inquisitive Lucy de Souza is born into an affluent Indian family that once prospered under the Raj. Known as Black British because of their English language and customs, when the British deserted India Lucy’s family was left behind, strangers in their own land.
Now living isolated from the hostile locals who see her family as remnants of an oppressive regime, a young Lucy grows up in the confines of their grand yet ramshackle home located in the dry, dispirited plains of Kanpur. But when it is time to start her education, Lucy finds herself angry and alone, struggling to find her place in this gentle country ravaged by poverty and hardship, surrounded by girls who look like her but don’t speak her language. Encouraged by her strong-minded mother and two older sisters, as she matures the ever-feisty Lucy begins to question the injustices around her, before facing a decision that will change the course of her life forever.
Black British is, for the most part, a thinly-disguised memoir dressed up as fiction. The story revolves around a woman who has returned to her ancestral home and ends up telling her life story to a stranger who asks a simple enough question: “Where do you come from, lady?” The majority of the tale occurs in 1960s India, with extremely brief flashes back to the original chatting pair at the end of each chapter to link the sections together.
While I enjoyed the book, narrated by thinker and independent spirit Lucy, the youngest of three sisters living a comparatively wealthy upbringing as English-speaking, private school-attending young ladies surrounded by great swathes of people living in poverty, it was not the suspenseful and tumultuous ride suggested by the blurb. I was expecting a lot more insight into the social upheaval of the time, but most of the story takes place within the walls of Lucy’s family’s compound and the girls are largely shielded from their family’s precarious social position and its implications by the adults in their lives. Basically, I wanted the danger to feature more largely in the telling of a story that sees Lucy go from her early years of schooling to the cusp of adulthood with nary a scary experience to report – except for an overzealous monkey intruder and a very hairy cab ride after she ventures as a young adult into the community with her father.
Even though the book didn’t end up being quite as exciting as I expected, it remains an absorbing snapshot of a time and place undergoing rapid and permanent social change. As English-speaking Catholics, Lucy’s family are well outside what was considered typical in her community and the struggles of being the outsider, even in one’s own home, are thoroughly explored. The prominent motif throughout the book is the security provided by a loving family unit and the ways in which adults nurture the enquiring minds of young people, even in situations that will cause the young person to move up a rung on the ladder of social maturity.
The book deals with a number of social issues including domestic abuse and the place of people identifying as homosexual in an unforgiving culture and time, and as the reader experiences these issues through Lucy’s eyes, it is clear that situations that one might consider black and white, move through every shade of grey when considered in a larger social context. The implications for individuals of their life choices – whether to remain in an unhappy marriage or relegate oneself to a life of hardship, for instance – are offered as fodder to fuel Lucy’s own looming crisis: to remain in the only home she knows, despite her outsider status and the ever-present threat of violence and hardship, or leave her roots behind for the sake of building a comfortable future.
This is certainly a book that focuses on familial relationships as a means for exploring the wider social conflicts that influence the decisions we make as individuals. As a fictional memoir, it is engaging and the characters are fleshed out and authentic. I would have liked to have seen more made of the Lucy of “twenty-one years later”. The tiny flashes we get of the Lucy who has returned to her homeland in search of belonging felt a bit contrived, as so much of the focus was on the period set in the 1960s, and I would have liked to have been privy to what Lucy did with, at least, some of her life since her family’s decision to move away. Nevertheless, this is a strong debut from De Souza and I would be interested in seeing what she comes up with next – particularly something that is wholly fictional.
If you are looking for historical fiction that reads like a memoir and places an emphasis on growing up as an outsider in one’s own land, you should certainly give Black British a look.
Until next time,