books, Historical Fiction, Reading, Women Writers

“The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey

unnamed-11          “‘How dare you speak of being in charge?’ Mukri’s gaze was contemptuous. ‘You are not even accredited by the Bombay Bar. You have no power in the court.’
          Perveen realized he must have looked into her background and had prepared to fight. His insulting declaration was intended to scare the begums into thinking she couldn’t defend them. Drawing herself up to her full five feet three inches, Perveen said, ‘The women on the other side of the jali are not weak. They hold more power in their six hands than you have in two.'”

I am not, generally, a crime/mystery/thriller, kind of a reader, but I can appreciate refreshing dips in those genre-pools every once in a while, particularly as I continue to try to push myself to read more broadly. So when I got wind of a new mystery series featuring a brown female protagonist, written by an accomplished, cosmopolitan female writer, and set among the conflicting ethnic communities of 1920s Bombay, all I could say was ‘Yes, please.’

In the first installment of Sujata Massey’s newest series, “The Widows of Malabar Hill”, we meet Perveen Mistry, a young woman who has fought to study law at a time when women are discouraged from doing any such thing and are excluded from the Bar. Perveen works with her father Jamshedji in his law practice, primarily doing legwork and paperwork to serve their clientele. When Perveen discovers that the widows of a recently deceased client, women who are purdahnashins living in strict seclusion, wish to dramatically restructure their finances and donate most of their inheritance to the family wakf, a charitable trust managed by a former employee of their husband, she has concerns about their motivation and their well-being. Mystery and intrigue ensue.

Massey’s exploration of some of the communities and cultures within 1920s India was the strength of this work for me. I particularly appreciated the exploration of the Mistry’s Parsi circle – Zoroastrian, long-ago immigrants from Persia to India who comprise a small, insular community in India.

Massey certainly had moments of pith and clever phrase, such as the following dialogue between Perveen and one of the widows:

“‘Razia-begum, it seems that you are chained to some people and a large old house that you cannot fully enjoy.’
Razia looked warily at Perveen. ‘Is that not the meaning of family?'”

However, this wasn’t a book that was deeply quotable, that called out to be dog-earred or re-read, that contained poetic prose or lyrical passages. It was an enjoyable, unexceptionally crafted work in which the novelties of the culture and history carried the day. Unfortunately, I suppose, that played into my prejudices about the genre – factual details tend to be more interesting than (often predictable) plot twists and more memorable than (often prosaic) turns of phrase.

Thank you to Soho Crime for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

books, Historical Fiction, Immigration, People of Color, Reading

“Black Mamba Boy” by Nadifa Mohamed

“Life is just this, Jama thought, a long journey, with lightness and darkness falling over you, companions all around on their own journeys. Each person sitting passively or impatiently, wondering whether the tracks of their fate would take them on a clattering iron horse to their destination or would sweep them away on an invisible path to another world.”

9780312569235Nadifa Mohamed’s “Black Mamba Boy” is a sprawling, nomadic tale of Jama, a young Somali boy who goes on a quest to find his father and, ultimately, to find manhood. Our story begins when Jama is a preteen, living with his mother on the begrudged scraps of extended family.

“Jama was tired of always turning up a beggar at people’s doors, begging for someone’s leftover food, leftover attention, leftover love.”

Jama lives on the margins of society, alternately embraced and cursed by his mother, spending days running errands and perpetrating petty thefts among the microcosm of market boys.

“Market boys of all different hues, creeds, and languages gathered at the beach to play, bathe, and fight. They were a roll call of infectious diseases, mangled limbs, and deformities.”

Jama is accustomed to having to fend for himself; he is impossibly tough and yet surprisingly tender-hearted.

“Living on the streets intermittently from the age of six had furnished him with a wolfish instinct for self-preservation; he could sense danger through the small hairs on his lower back and taste it in the thick, dusty air.”

His is a story of constant heartache and loss. When his mother dies, Jama flees Aden in search of his estranged father; he is a boy on an epic and daunting journey, crossing unknown lands with little knowledge and less help. Nadifa Mohamed employs all of the heroic quest devices of ancient lore; there are famines and floods, conquerors and colonials, and daunting, expansive geography. Covering more than a decade (1930s-1940s), “Black Mamba Boy” stretches from Aden, Yemen through Hargeisa, Somaliland to Eritrea to Egypt to Palestine and beyond. The reader can’t help but struggle alongside Jama as he fights his way through one untenable situation after another. His will and his tenacity are all that stand between him and utter destruction.

Mohamed handles the base, dehumanizing white racism of colonials in Africa with unapologetic venom and explicit brutality. She also deals with both the communal loyalty and fidelity which come with tribalism, as well as the seemingly inevitable conflicts and oppression which stem from intertribal friction. In Mohamed’s capable hands, the reader sees clearly that while Jama sometimes benefits from his membership to clan, friends and compatriots are just as often subjugated because of their clan or familial affiliation.

Though the tropes of the hero’s journey are, at their barest form, familiar, Mohamed’s narrative is a refreshing perspective. “Black Mamba Boy” is a story of tribalism, of belonging, and of perseverance beyond all human understanding. It is expansive and enchanting.