review by Maryom
Although Shyama is forty four and already has a grown-up daughter, she and her younger partner Toby want a baby of their own, but after several years of trying, their options are down to adoption or surrogacy. In her rural village in India, Mala is about to discover that she has a valuable 'commodity' to sell - her ability to bear children. Signing up to be a surrogate mother would bring her almost unimaginable wealth, and perhaps a way out of her drab existence.
Meanwhile, Shyama's daughter Tara is starting to feel alienated, a spare part in the new family unit
The House of Hidden Mothers takes a very personal story and sets it against a wider backdrop of what it means to be an Indian woman - both in Britain and India. In both places, things are changing. Shyama's parents still follow the traditions of their native country - as the family member who made it 'big' in England, her father is expected to financially help out everyone back in India, and there's more than a hint that he's taken advantage of - but Shyama herself has divorced her husband, now lives with a much younger Englishman, and runs her own beauty parlour business. For her daughter, Tara, there are no limits to what she could achieve.
In India, for the majority of women, there are no such choices. In the cities, with high rise housing and luxurious shopping malls, a new sort of business woman is emerging but in rural areas life hasn't changed all that much. Mala's marriage was arranged for her, offering a dowry still matters and the husband is still the boss! Between the old traditions and new attitudes, women walk a dangerous line, open to a level of physical abuse unthinkable here.
Although it's impossible to discuss this book without mentioning these wider issues, it is primarily the story of a woman desperately wanting a child and another who can provide it; a story of mothers and daughter, friends and family, hope and heart-ache. Curiously I found my sympathies shifting as I read - at first Shyama seemed very needy and self-centred, while Mala was naive and exploited, but as the story progressed Mala came to understand the hold she had over Shyama and Toby, and, I felt, to rather slyly manipulate things.
Overall the tone isn't as light as in Syal's previous novels, and, although the ending rounds off fairly happily, I couldn't help but still be angry at many of the events.
Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - DoubledayGenre- adult,