Given the unusual title, I was slightly dubious about this book when it popped up for review. However, I’ve learned never to judge a book by a) its cover, or b) its title, and rightly so, or I’d have missed out on this corker.
Nikki is a young British-Punjabi woman, raised in England and is very much a modern twenty-something, having moved away from the traditions of her ancestors in her rebellious teens. Having dropped out of law school after realising that she was working towards being a lawyer more for her family than for herself, she’s avoiding her fractured relationship with her Mum & Sister, and living in a flat above a bar, working shifts downstairs for buttons to pay her rent.
When sister Mindi decides that she wants an arranged marriage, despite not understanding why she would want to do something that she herself finds old-fashioned & oppressive, Nikki eventually agrees to go and visit the Sikh temple at Southall to pin up a flyer for Mindi on the marriage wall. While there, on the vacancies board, she spots an advert for a creative writing teacher, wanted for 2 evenings a week. Thinking she’ll be earning a bit of extra cash helping some old ladies write stories, she applies, and by virtue of being the only applicant, is surprised to find herself landing the gig, and starting the next week.
Once she starts the class it very quickly becomes obvious that a lot of the ladies she is going to teach are elder Punjabi widows who can barely speak English and certainly can’t write anything in it. She starts trying to help them learn their alphabet but the women are rather offended by this attempt at being taught by a younger women with what are effectively children’s books. They want to share their stories, which aren’t the stories you’d might expect them to be, nor the type of writing that their culture is likely to find acceptable – stories of lust, hidden desires, female empowerment, breaking cultural stereotypes, for starters. These women have stories to tell, but don’t have the ability, the opportunity or the outlet to get them out there and they look to Nikki to help them do that – which she does, albeit in secret. Even the person who hired Nikki doesn’t know what is going on, although she has suspicions that the classes are not just all ‘A, B, C’s’. Eventually, word gets around, as it tends to do, and there are more and more women wanting to attend this liberating writing class, conversely, this attention brings with it a sinister group of men called ‘The Brothers’, the self-appointed morality police who go around ensuring that the women of their culture are behaving as they expect them to.
There are some strong themes within this novel and it’s not always an easy read. There is mystery surrounding some suspicious suicides/deaths within the community that suggests the possibility of honour killings. There is the oppressive nature of ‘The Brothers’ and their belief that they have the right to dictate what the women of their community can and cannot do. There is examination of marriage, arranged and otherwise, stigma around divorce and the enforced loneliness of the widows who are not allowed to find love again once their husbands are lost to them. Also to note is that there is some strong sexual imagery in the stories written by the women, though it’s not gratuitous, but leans more towards powerful – an unleashing of lifetime after lifetime of pent-up desires, that sometimes even follow these brave and quietly adventurous ladies home!
Above it all arcs the empowerment that can be felt from a collective, creative environment, regardless of situation or circumstance. How it can bring people together, and encourage them to face the inevitable dangers that come with challenging age old cultural norms.
It’s an unusual novel, beautifully descriptive, full of warmth, wit and spicy characters.
Disclaimer: I was given an advance copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review