As if my body knew it was 1st June, I woke up at 0415 on the first day of 20 Books of Summer and could not get back to sleep. This was irritating, but at least meant that I could finally get going with the books I’ve been planning for this summer – and despite the fact that this post is coming several days later, I found The Widows of Malabar Hill to be a pretty quick read. This novel by Sujata Massey is the first in her Perveen Mistry series of historical mysteries, which are set in 1921 in the late stages of the British Raj. Perveen herself, a solicitor, is inspired by the first two Indian women to train and practice as lawyers. Perveen studied at Oxford and is now working at her father’s law firm in Bombay. She isn’t able to represent people in court, but she’s integral to the contract and discovery work that underpins his cases. This has some unexpected advantages – for example, Perveen is able to meet with secluded Muslim women who are not able to meet with men outside the family.
In this first book, that skill is used really well. One of her father’s clients has passed away and there are some irregularities in the way he’s left his money to his three widows and assorted children. She’s able to meet in person with the women – something her father has never been able to do. The unfolding of the mystery takes enjoyable though not entirely unpredictable twists and turns. I didn’t find it especially gripping, but nor did I guess all of the solution. In this first book, the mystery runs parallel to some flashbacks to Perveen’s early student days a few years previously. I found the flashbacks much more compelling than the mystery, if I’m honest, but I enjoyed both strands of the story. Although I don’t think the two threads were weaved together as well as they could have been, they definitely complemented one another, and it’s clear that Perveen’s experiences in the flashbacks affected her conduct and perspective in the contemporary storyline.
There are a lot of interesting characters in the book beyond Perveen – I might go so far as to say the characters are all interesting except Perveen (who I will be getting to in a bit). I think her father Jamshedji, who runs the law firm where Perveen works, was the best drawn. He is very proud of Perveen’s academic ability and is thrilled that she is going to become the first female solicitor in Bombay – but he also still wants her to conform to various societal norms around women’s behaviour for the time and place. That seemed believable to me, as well as being an acknowledgement that most women who had significant professional status at this point in time were supported by a man – a father, a brother, a husband – who had the necessary social clout to insist on it. I really enjoyed him every time he was on the page, and the same for his wife (whose name has unfortunately escaped me). Similarly, the settings felt fleshed out and believable, especially the big secluded house where the eponymous widows live.
It’s definitely not a perfect book. Massey goes to great lengths to explain the very basics of the difference between major faiths (like “Muslims believe in a heaven whereas Hindus believe in reincarnation” – which is almost a direct quote from the book). Primary school stuff – it felt a bit like including talking about the water cycle, or stating that plants need light to grow. It falls into the usual historical fiction trap of not weaving in the exposition properly, on top of which all the religious information is also stuck in on top – so it felt like a lot of hamfisted exposition throughout the book. That’s a common first-in-a-series problem for historical fiction, where the author has to establish a world that feels sufficiently lived-in to sustain several novels. It wasn’t enough of an issue to prevent me from enjoying it, but it did stick out.
I also think that, unlike her father, Perveen is a bit implausibly 21st-century. Her college friend, Alice, is a lesbian, and there’s no indication that Perveen is shocked to learn this – despite literally never having heard of same-sex relationships before, and having been brought up in a sexually conservative culture. She treats people from all faith groups and castes equally without exception, but there’s no indication of how exactly she came to this point-of-view. Given the extent to which this is difficult for many rich people now, I struggle to buy it for 1921. Some of her opinions about women sound a bit Twitter Feminist rather than Edwardian Suffragette, as well. I think it’s harder for genre fiction to do a good job of this than literary fiction, because these novels often have less internality and aren’t so character-driven. At the same time, the Temeraire books about a dragon-based nineteenth century air force are more realistic on this front. When I’m thinking about the depiction of attitudes in the context of historical fiction, I think of how the main human character in that series, Captain Lawrence, engages in the passive homophobia of the day until he finds out one of his best friends is in a relationship with another man – and it takes him nearly a whole book to accept that this isn’t the same as keeping a string of mistresses or taking advantage of the servants. Perveen doesn’t seem to have gone through the same process.
Despite my reservations, though, I definitely enjoyed this enough to try another book in the series – perhaps the prequel novella, in which Perveen solves a mystery during her student years? A great start to my 15 books of summer!
I’ve seen this series around and am half-tempted, but yours is not the only review that has suggested that Parveen’s attitudes are too modern. It’s tricky in a series because the author can’t afford to give the central character such unpleasant attitudes that the reader will hate them, but sometimes I think it’s better not to try to shoehorn current issues into historical fiction. There are plenty of stories to be told that don’t focus on Twitter trends! However, first books are always tricky – I might try one of the later books and see how she’s settled down…
Because the author managed to make the side characters more believable without being unpleasant, I’m hopeful that she’ll be able to develop Perveen a bit better in the later books. It’s a great premise and setting for a mystery series, so I hope she does!
That often seems to be a tricky balance in historical fiction – authors want their characters to feel modern and accepting but then they end up feeling entirely unrealistic for their time!
Yes – I think it is a hard thing to get right! That’s why I think the Temeraire books are such a good example of getting it right, where the main character slowly evolves in response to particular circumstances. But it has to be done well, so that it doesn’t feel preachy or unbelievable, I think.
I love that your brain was too excited for 20 Books of Summer and woke you way too early. Sounds like a nice start to the challenge. What motivates you decide to participate in 20 Books of Summer each year?
Lots of things, I think! I almost always make a new blog friend during the challenge, and if I’m travelling over summer, I like picking out a specific book or two to happily anticipate as a treat that I’ve saved up. Cathy is such a laid-back challenge host, so there’s not really any pressure to finish all the books on the list, and it’s just a lot of fun.
Ohhh, I never thought about making new blog friends through 20 Books. How do you find them? Or do you seek them out? I never had anyone new come to Grab the Lapels the two summers that I did the challenge.
A couple of times a month I look at the tag and go and read some reviews that seem interesting – I comment on one or two, and then if the other person comments back sometimes a blog friendship emerges 🙂