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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Alison McQueen - The Secret Children

recorded review on show 23rd Aujust by Ro Bennett

The book is set in Assam India, in 1925. James Mac Donald has been reared in India, he loves the country and has no desire for England or to choose an English bride from the eager girls sent over like brood mares. But when he takes Chinthimani, a beautiful, but simple, illiterate young local girl as his concubine, this inevitably has tragic consequences - especially since in her innocence she thinks she is his wife.

They have two daughters, Serafina and Mary. They were "secret" children because they couldn't be integrated into either society as they were mixed race and illegitimate so they lived in a household separate from James but also apart from the local villages which they were forbidden to visit. James for some unknown reason rejected Chinthimani once she had her second daughter and his visits became increasingly rare although he was fond of the girls. Chinthimani is bewildered and heartbroken, she doesn’t know what she has done wrong and gradually becomes an alcoholic. As time goes on the girls are neglected by both parents, but consistently loved and looked after by the servant Shurika.

Eventually James marries an Englishwoman and the girls are sent to a Catholic boarding school until they are old enough to make their own way in the world. The story describes what happens to each character as they go their different ways, but it’s more like a brief summary of their life events and there isn’t enough depth to the characters.

The book cover says the story is inspired by the author's family history so it is not clear what is fact and what fiction or how closely she has adhered to incidents which actually happened. Whichever, it certainly didn’t make for light, easy reading and I had to speed read it or I wouldn’t have stuck with it because I found it extremely depressing.

It was brimming with incidents and repercussions of social stigma, superstition, ignorance, prejudice, exploitation, abuse and man’s inhumanity to man as the characters lurched from tragedy to tragedy, heartbreak to heartbreak. I read to the end hoping for something positive to happen but it was just unremitting disappointment, disillusionment and misery for all concerned.

There are little glimmers of light - Shurika the loving maid, Shiva the loyal servant, Dorothy the second wife, the nuns and Father Lazarus are all decent people but they are not explored in any detail - all the emphasis is put on the negative and it focuses on the unhappy aspects.

The poor sad little girls do survive and make lives for themselves - though we never find out whether those lives were eventually happy and fulfilled - it seemed unlikely from the circumstances described. There were beautiful descriptions of different areas of India and an insight into Indian life and customs. It was interesting to learn historical facts about the tension and disruption bought about by WW2, the departure of the British and the partition. But there was so much wretchedness it left me feeling miserable.

One reviewer wrote: A perfect read for a rainy Sunday afternoon.‘Well I read it on a rainy Sunday afternoon and it almost left me wanting to slit my wrists! So overall I didn’t enjoy the book. I wish I hadn’t persevered with it but had read something uplifting and cheerful instead.

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