The House of Hidden Mothers opens with Shyama sitting in the reception of a Harley Street fertility clinic.
All the years spent avoiding getting pregnant, when you sat on the cold plastic seats of student/shared house/first flat toilets praying for the banner of blood to declare war was over, that your life would go on as before. And then the later years, spent in much nicer houses on a better class of loo seat, reclaimed teak, cushioned, cheekily self-conscious seats like the water-filled plastic one with a barbed wire pattern inside – her daughter’s choice of course – still waiting. And praying. But this time for the blood not to come, a bloodless satisfied silence that would tell Shyama her old life was most definitely over as inside her, a new one had just begun.
At forty-four, Shyama’s about to be told she has an ‘inhospitable womb’ but she wants to have a baby with her thirty-four year old partner, Toby. Shayma has a nineteen-year-old daughter, Tara, from her marriage but Toby’s not her father nor is there a large enough age gap between the two of them for him to act like one towards her.
Tara’s studying Media and Culture at university and has found herself living at home after being turned down for accommodation, the university being close to her family home in London. This has clearly contributed to the tension between Shyama and Tara who struggle to be civil to each other when they’re in the same room.
Also present are Shyama’s parents, Sita and Prem, who live in a flat at the bottom of her garden. Their story revolves around the flat they own in Delhi.
Five years before his retirement, seven years before hers, Prem and Sita decided to invest their life savings in a piece of Back Home, a two-bedroom flat in South Delhi not far from the centre or the airport, close to Prem’s favourite brother’s place, the idea being that Yogi could keep an eye on the property until Prem and Sita occupied it. A small flat near family, perfect for their retirement, the summer months in England with Shyama and Tara, the winter months in Delhi, eating falooda kulfi at their favourite café in CP, wandering around Lodi gardens reliving their college strolls when even the brush of a hand could send him into a tailspin of unrequited longing, playing taash in shaded dhabas over a peg of JW with the old friends who had decided to stay, those who were left.
But Yogi told Prem that his daughter and her family needed somewhere to stay while their house was finished. They stopped paying rent after a year. They’ve built an extension onto it, they’ve had two children there and fifteen years later, ten of those spent fighting in court, they’re still occupying the flat.
Initially the novel alternates between chapters set in London and chapters set in a small village in India. There we meet Mala.
At the beginning of her story, Mala is watching the delivery of a fridge to the village. And so is everyone else. Seema, the woman receiving this expensive item has also recently had a brick house with a proper roof constructed. She’s come into money and the rest of the village is speculating as to exactly where it came from. This also offers a contrast to Mala whose father died before she was married:
And so months [after her father’s death], when Ram said he would take pity on fatherless Mala with her cursed widow of a mother and unmarried sister, Mala didn’t feel she could complain. He was taking her on with virtually no dowry, just a wooden trunk full of second hand saris and stainless steel pans. Six months later, there was nothing more left in the trunk except the one coconut that wasn’t broken at the wedding ceremony, lying at the bottom poking out of an old tablecloth like the wrinkled brown head of a long-dead baby.
Mala’s first pregnancy miscarries and then when Ram’s becoming friends with Seema’s husband coincides with him stopping having sex with her, she determines to find out what happened to Seema in the months she was away from the village and returned looking as though she:
…had left something of herself behind, as if the city had nibbled quietly softly at her plump corners and everything fat and free about her had been swallowed up.
Syal covers a number of themes in The House of Hidden Mothers: surrogacy, age-gap relationships, interracial relationships, property, families, mother and daughter relationships, teenage friendships, class, privilege and female friendships. It’s a long list for a 400+ page novel but Syal’s skill is in making this a plot-driven book which isn’t overwhelmed by the number of issues covered in it.
Initially I found the structure an issue: the chapters are long (there are twelve and an epilogue in total) and once I’d settled into the world of Shyama and her friends and family, it was disconcerting to find myself jolted to a little village in Delhi and Mala’s world. Of course the two stories come together but not before we’ve been back and forth a few times.
However, The House of Hidden Mothers is an engaging read. I thought that covering a topic as controversial as surrogacy was interesting, particularly choosing a country where the procedures aren’t closely regulated. Syal writes family relationships well – there were so many cringe-inducing moments between mother and daughter where they just couldn’t manage to communicate with each other and I wanted to have a word with them both.
There was a tipping-point in my reading where I went from being interested but not gripped by the book to not wanting to put it down. I think that’s to do with the pace of the two main strands of the plot and the point when they come together. If you want to get stuck into a smart, plot driven novel with a hint of family saga, you could do a lot worse than this.
Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.