I picked up this book purely because I liked the cover. Isn’t it just gorgeous? Also, I’ve just realized that I always seem to mention why/how I came by the books I review. I wonder why?
Anyway, as I was saying, I picked up this book, and then remembered that I had read another book by the same author -The Japanese Lover and had reviewed it here.
Nothing in Lakshmi’s childhood, running carefree and barefoot on the sun-baked earth amid the coconut and mango trees of Ceylon, could have prepared her for what life was to bring her. At fourteen, she finds herself traded in marriage to a stranger across the ocean in the fascinating land of Malaysia.
She realizes when she reaches Malaysia, that her husband was far from the rich man her mother was getting her married to. That was all Lakshmi’s mother wanted, a good match for her daughter. For her daughter to escape the misfortunes that she herself had to live through, and even that, Lakshmi realized wouldn’t happen. Her husband Ayah, was not only not rich, he was just a civil servant, neck deep in debts. It took all of Lakshmi’s willpower and mental strength to whip things into shape. To get her husband’s finances in order and to make the most of a bad situation. Gone was the carefree, happy girl. In her place was a determined, strong woman, sometimes too strong for the rest of her family.
She gives birth to six children by the time she is nineteen. Her only real friendship is with Mai Tai, who is a servant in a rich Chinese household. Mai Tai is forced to bear children for her master, and then see her children taken away and given to his wives. Mai Tai’s only link to kindness(and normalcy) was through Lakshmi.
It is an epic tale encompassing, three generations of Lakshmi’s family, through everyday life, heartbreaks, loss and political events like the Japanese invasion of Malaysia. Narrated by the various characters, recorded by Lakshmi’s grand daughter Dimple, and discovered by her great grand daughter, Nisha. The book absolutely transports you into Malaysia. You are right there, witnessing Lakshmi’s friendship with Mai Tai, feeling their terror when the Japanese invasion takes place, you see different perspectives on the same incident when narrated by different people. The constant factor is Lakshmi’s strong character(and sometimes stubbornness), be it when she comes to term with the reality of her husband’s situation, when she devises ways of keeping her daughters safe during the Japanese invasion, when her beloved daughter dies, leaving everybody bereft or when she sees everything a fortune teller had foreseen coming true. We can feel Lakshmi’s despair which she hides from the rest of her family, when she sees her gentle, unintelligent husband being the one everybody has a kind corner for, and she, who does so much for everybody, bearing the brunt of all criticism, both spoken and unspoken.
It is a story with a lot of sadness, but it keeps the attention of the reader until the very end. It is a tale of choices that people make, sometimes, knowing, and almost inviting trouble.. It is the sort of book, I think, would be great for book club reading. There is so much to analyze, so many layers to the story and the characters. No character is just black and white, with the exception of Mohini, who came across through every narrative someone really good at heart. Each of the characters are well fleshed out, and that couldn’t be an easy task, given that there are so many of them. All their narratives ring true. The writing is vivid, so clear that you could be right there. I just love books like that.
It is a book I would certainly recommend. It is not a cheerful, bubbly read, if that is what you are after. I give it a 4/5.
About the Author
Rani Manicka, an economics graduate, was born and educated in Malaysia and divides her time between Malaysia and England. This was her debut book and she has gone on to publish two more books.