ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal

Article published on April 17, 2015.

I think I may have read Anita and Me (1997) before I really knew who Meera Syal was. I do remember how vividly she portrayed a West Midlands childhood from a semi-autobiographical Punjabi perspective. Since then Ms Syal has become much celebrated in the media for her many achievements. In fact, I was surprised to find Hidden Mothers is only her third book, the middle one being Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee. And much though we have all enjoyed The Kumars at Number 42 and her appearances in various successful TV/film/theatre ventures, I can’t help thinking we readers have lost out.

This book starts comfortably enough in East London with three generations effectively living together. Prem and Sita live in the house at the bottom of their daughter, Shyama’s garden. Shyama, early 40s, lives with toyboy partner, Toby, who is happy to go along with Shyama’s desire for a child. Having tried everything – including IVF – the last resort is surrogacy. Enter Mala a young woman trapped in a dull marriage in a village in India.

Don’t worry, it is all above board with Dr Passi’s clinic providing a complete and safe service. The fly in the ointment is actually back in the UK: 19-year-old first child Tara feels left out of Shyama’s arrangements which only adds to teenage angst and awkwardness. She has the ability to pour adolescent derision into a conversation at the drop of a hat,

‘Mum’s arriving back on Saturday and she’s bringing her with her.’
‘Sorry, what . . . who’s her?’
‘The baby mother, Rent-a-Womb, whatever you want to call her.’

Fortunately, Tara has a very strong bond with her grandparents, Prem and Sita.

So the stage is comfortably set for an inter-generational story, except the many twists and turns conspire to confuse and enlighten you along the way. What I didn’t see coming was the climax based on a real life event that hit the headlines across the globe. Ms Syal’s whole story is admirably executed and packs a real punch. Prem and Sita’s parallel narrative about trying to reclaim the Mumbai home they have bought for their retirement from Prem’s brother’s squatting family is particularly powerful and the face-to-face confrontation had me on the edge of my seat. Admittedly some of the loose ends are conveniently tied up but isn’t that what you always want from a good novel like this?

Was Meera Syal impelled to write by the real life incident? Difficult to know but I for one am very pleased she did. The House of Hidden Mothers gives much food for thought and I can imagine many reading groups debating this book well into the evening. Highly recommended.

Guy Pringle, April 2015

The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal is published by Doubleday in June 2015

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