Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel follows three sisters on a road trip across India to complete their late mother’s last rites. In order to do this, the three of them have had to press pause on their own personal issues and focus on mending their fraught relationships with each other.
Jaswal’s writing is full of humour and warmth, delivering a narrative that’s both funny and poignant. The three sisters’ characters are distinctly drawn, from the bossy-but-capable Rajni, to the reserved Shireen to hot-mess Jezmeen. The narrative is split between the viewpoints of the sisters, which is useful for gaining an insight into their individual personal problems and for contrasting this against how each sister is seen by the others.
What Jaswal does well in this book is to show how it’s possible for adult siblings’ relationships to fragment under the pressure of other relationships – marriages, children, careers all take their toll. But at the same time, there is always a sense that our siblings are the people who have grown up with us and who know our earliest and perhaps most authentic selves. As one of three sisters myself, I could relate to the close bond these three women clearly shared beneath all the bickering and teasing.
This was a novel about the earliest and perhaps most lasting female relationships we have: between mothers and daughters, and sisters. It was about how we interpret the actions and motivations of those who love us/whom we love. And that despite the turbulence and uncertainty in other areas of our lives, sisterhood can act as a supportive and anchoring force. Put like this, it might sound a bit cheesy, but it’s saved from being mawkish or sentimental by Jaswal’s unique comedic sense: the part with the fish had me snorting with laughter – I won’t say any more.
Jaswal also explores cultural expectations of women and marriage, and while I’m always a bit wary if I think a book is in danger of playing to stereotypes, I think the diversity of experiences within the same family in the novel means she manages to walk the line between writing just another immigrant misery-chronicle, and actually tackling issues which are real and specific in some parts of Indian / South Asian culture. The only thing I was disappointed about was that we didn’t really see the moment where one of the characters finally stands up for themselves and walks out of an abusive situation. I wanted to see the perpetrators of that injustice face the consequences of their actions and felt slightly robbed of a more satisfying sense of closure. However I can also understand the decision not to go down this route, as this might have shifted the focus of the novel.
A great summer vacation read.
Brown Brontë rating: 4 out of 5 stars.