Powerful and thought-provoking…
😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
When a family is horrifically murdered, the sole survivor becomes the chief suspect, even though she is a fourteen-year-old girl who had been found tied up at the scene and had herself clearly been assaulted and raped. Durga is now in prison and social worker Simran Singh is called in by her old friend Amarjit, the Inspector General in Punjab, to assess her mental health and decide whether she can be interrogated. But Simran finds it impossible to believe in Durga’s guilt and so sets out to investigate the events that led up to the murders…
This powerful book won the Costa First Novel award in 2010. The murder story itself is hard-hitting, but the real purpose of the book is to take a much more in-depth look at the place of girls and women within Punjabi society, and it doesn’t pull any punches. In a society where male children are treasured, female infanticide is shown as commonplace, while women who fail to produce male children are stigmatised and may be cast aside to face a life of poverty and disgrace. With the advancement of medicine, Desai shows how the ability to determine the gender of a foetus has led to the practice of aborting females, sometimes with the mother’s willing consent, but sometimes forced. At the same time, these very practices mean there is a shortage of females of marriageable age, leading to arranged marriages with girls from Indian families elsewhere. The book also shows the continuing cultural after-effects of Empire and the links with the large Asian community in Britain, specifically Southall, an overwhelmingly Asian-populated suburb of London, where the elders still conform to old traditions while the younger generation are much more anglicised in their outlook.
Simran is independently wealthy, so has escaped the traditional need to marry and breed. She is a modern woman, who smokes and drinks and has boyfriends, all things considered quite shocking here in the town of Jullundur where she grew up, but which she left many years ago. Though she’s now in her forties, Simran’s mother still hasn’t given up hope of marrying her off and getting some grandchildren, and this aspect of the story adds some much-needed humour to lighten the tone in places, while also allowing the author to contrast the more enlightened attitudes of some areas of India to those prevailing in Jullundur.
The story is mainly told by Simran in the first-person (past-tense, thankfully) intercut with sections from Durga’s journal and e-mails between Simran and Durga’s sister-in-law in Southall. The plot is a little too convoluted and sometimes messy – it seems as if Desai has wanted to cover so many issues that she has had to cram too much in for total plausibility. There is an occasional descent into preachiness but not badly enough to destroy the effectiveness of the story. The writing is good rather than excellent, and for my taste there were too many unexplained Indian words that left me floundering for a meaning from time to time. I also wondered if the society and culture could really be quite as bleak as Desai paints it, but perhaps it is.
None of these points, however, take away from the impact of the book. Unlike so many of the crime novels I’ve been disappointed by recently, this one shows what the genre can do when it’s done well – cast some light on aspects of society that are normally hidden, and tell a strong and hard-hitting story without indulging in lengthy descriptions of gratuitous sex and misogynistic violence for the sole purpose of ‘entertainment’. Desai has subsequently written a further two Simran books, and I will be keen to see how she develops the character and what subjects she tackles in those. Meantime, this one is highly recommended.
Thanks to Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist for the recommendation that led me to this book.