Forty-four year old British Asian Shyama has fallen in love with a younger man and they dream of having a child together. Shyama’s elderly parents Prem and Sita aren’t sure about it but they have bigger problems when it comes to relatives in India taking advantage and Shyama’s teenage daughter Tara couldn’t care less about her mother’s mad plan to have a baby. Meanwhile, Mala lives in a rural village in India, trapped in an oppressive and lonely marriage and dreams of escape. Mala and Shyama each have something to offer the other, but will they both get everything they dream of?
The House of Hidden Mothers has a lot happening in it. While the main storyline is Shyama and Toby’s quest to have a child and how that brings Mala into their lives and affects their family and friends, the other family members each have their own problems too. Prem and Sita have been battling in the courts for their property (which has been taken over by relatives) for decades and their blind faith in the law where it is so easily corrupt has left them almost broken. Tara was the most fascinating character for me, her relationship with her mother really isn’t that great – her mum is so focussed on having a new baby that she ends up neglecting Tara and doesn’t notice when anything’s wrong or just puts it down to Tara being a teenager – and bad things happen to her but she works through them and finds a cause she really wants to fight for and embraces her Indian roots.
The House of Hidden Mothers is really about women and their relationships and their rights and freedoms. Both Toby and Prem do get to show their side of the story but more often than not it shows that the women are the stronger ones who will fight for what they want. Tara gets really involved in women’s rights and the real life event of the 2012 Delhi gang rape is featured and how that affects Tara and spurs her on. Mala wants a better life for herself, she can speak and read English far better than anyone presumes she can and she has a thirst for knowledge and the chance to live her life how she wants to. Shyama will do just about anything to get a child and it does put a strain on her friendships but I kind of liked that as it showed that women don’t always agree with each other but most of the time, they’ll still be there for a friend if and when they need it.
Other themes The House of Hidden Mothers touched upon are surrogacy and race and culture. All are fascinating topics and the way different characters deal with them is interesting as it shows that feelings towards ones race or social class can be complicated. That being said, they are topics that are only really broadly touched upon and along with violence towards women which Tara is passionate about, they don’t always seem to get the focus they deserve. It seems like the author wanted to talk about so many important things but then couldn’t always do them justice as she also had to move the plot forward.
I had a really odd relationship with this book, especially the last 100 pages or so. I think it’s because I could see that it was very likely that there wouldn’t be a happy ending for everyone because it had at its heart a very realistic family with realistic problems. It felt like I was watching a car crash and I couldn’t look away. It took me a while to finish it because of this. I just didn’t want to see characters in pain and suffering, that being said, though there is sadness there’s glimmers of hope too – which I think is true to life too.
There are no bad guys in The House of Hidden Mothers but that doesn’t stop bad things from happening. If you’d like to read a family drama that also includes stuff on race, culture and women’s rights then this book could be for you. 3/5.