by Meera Syal

4 stars

61aExw9GOpL._AA160_This is a tale of two very different women living in two very different societies. In East London, successful businesswoman Shyama has fallen for a younger man. They want a child but she is now too old. In India, surrogacy is a booming business with life-changing payments for village women with few, if any other prospect of bettering themselves.
It’s a very engaging fiction about the lives of women and the essential vileness of men – at least that’s the central message I came away with. Very few males (it’s mainly the fathers) possess much honesty, decency or kindness. Almost all the younger specimens, even the best of them, are cheats and liars. The worst are rapists, even murderers. Few seem to have much genuine respect for women.
It’s not entirely one-sided, plenty of the women are hard to like too. I grew to loathe the surrogate Mala with her calculated, self-conscious ‘simple village ways’ and ingratiating grace. She is a remarkably cleverly-constructed character. All of her motives and actions are so well hidden. I was sorry for her at first, as I was meant to be. Such an intelligent, ambitious girl marooned by birth in a prison of arranged marriage and traditional values and expectations, trapped in a rural village with no hope of escape from a future of hard work, exploitation and childbearing. But almost from the start – from the moment Shyama takes her to the Mall – she proves herself an adept little schemer. I am certain she had everything planned from the moment she set her husband up as a wife-beater. Calculating, manipulative and utterly Machiavellian, I disliked her intensely. By contrast, she made the protagonist Shyama (the obvious cipher for the author) even more likeable than she was clearly intended to be.
The House of Hidden Mothers is too long; terribly over written in parts, with long, unnecessary digressions into Indian politics and the immigrant experience. It is also predictable – it was very apparent to me what would transpire in almost every storyline, especially the last and the biggest. But – despite all that – it was always very readable, always entertaining; I always wanted to know what was about to occur, even though I had already guessed. All the characters – even the least of them – are memorable and very well drawn. I particularly enjoyed Shyama’s beauty-salon colleagues and patrons, and scheming, devious Uncle Yogi and snobbish Auntie Neelum. Tara’s a bit of a pill, but teenagers usually are and she was perfectly portrayed.
So much of the story is told by conjecture; little is laid out in black and white. Syal tends to skirt over points of plot and leave much to the imagination. It’s an original way to tell a tale and one I enjoyed, having to read between the lines and think about it it. And – perhaps surprisingly, considering the author is best known for her comedy – this is not a light or easy read. Dark themes abound, there are some very nasty characters and the end is no comfort. It left me more than a little bit angry and with an aching sadness that there are no truly happy endings or tidy conclusions.