Title: The Widows of Malabar Hill
Author: Sujata Massey
Genre: crime, historical fiction, adult
Published on: January 9th, 2018
Published by: SoHo Press
My rating: 5 chai lattes!
The Widows of Malabar Hill was one of my most anticipated novels of the year. As soon as I read the synopsis, I knew I had to read it. This was the second book in my #AsianLitChallenge, which came at a perfect time! I haven’t heard much about it here on the blogging community yet. I think it’s one of those books that is underrated. I’d love it if I could get more people interested in it!
It’s Bombay in 1921. Perveen Mistry is the daughter of a well-respected Zoroastrian lawyer and has just started working at his law firm. She’s the first female lawyer in Bombay, and one of the first in all of India. With an Oxford education in law and a passion for women’s rights, Perveen is eager to start her career.
Perveen can’t show up in court, so she handles contracts and wills. One day, Mr. Omar Farid’s, a wealthy Muslim mill owner, will is handed to her to analyze. However, the more Perveen studies the documents, the more she realizes something isn’t right. The wishes of the widows don’t seem to make sense to Perveen. They’re all giving away their inheritance to a charity, leaving them and their children nothing.
Perveen travels to meet the Farid widows, where the women live in seclusion. She notices that there seem to be more secrets and silent battles between these walls than anywhere else in Bombay. When a body shows up in one of the rooms of the house, suspicion and intrigue spread around the house — and it’s Perveen’s job to get to the bottom of the mystery.
If you want to read my non-spoilery review of this marvelous novel, click to read more!
Can anyone talk about the book and not mention the beautiful setting? The writer did an amazing job at capturing every aspect of India and its culture. We get a feel for Bombay in the 1920s and for Calcutta in the 1910s. For the docks, the markets, and the richest neighborhood of Bombay. For the inside of the courtroom, the inside of the Farid family home, and for a British expat’s home. Everything was stunningly described!
I haven’t read a lot of books set in India — maybe none! I felt that Sujata Massey showed me India in an acceptable, yet challenging way. There were a lot of foreign words (Urdu, Bengali, and Hindi) that I struggled with, but through context I understood everything. I had no idea that there were so many words with which you’re supposed to address people. I also didn’t know that there were so many different religions and ethnicities in just one city! Bombay is portrayed in this novel as a very cosmopolitan and diverse space, and I loved it!
This is of course related to my previous point, but I feel like it deserves being highlighted. In this novel, there are characters of different faiths and ethnicities. This has very much to do with how diverse India is as a whole, but I think the author did an amazing job at including so many different groups. We have Muslims and Hindus getting along, Bengalis and Englishman living in the same city, and women and men working at the same firm. We even have a little taste of being lesbian in India!
Massey also doesn’t fail in portraying how this diverse cast interacts. There are, of course, many tensions between these groups — and we see this through Perveen’s career. However, this adds substance to the story. Besides the crime mystery that is the focus of the novel, we also have these class, gender, and ethnical struggles going on. Here’s a quote from the book I feel embodies this well:
The boundaries communities drew around themselves seemed to narrow their lives — whether it was women and men, Hindus and Muslims, Parsis and everyone else.
The female empowerment & Perveen’s character…
I can’t review this book without writing about how badass Perveen is. Despite only being 23 at the time, she has so much knowledge and wisdom that helps her during this will/murder case. She has strong ideas and morals, and is always defending the things she thinks are right.
Living in India in the 1920s definitely wasn’t easy, and we can see that through how Perveen lives. Despite coming from a powerful family, she still doesn’t have the freedom to go out without a chaperone. She also can’t defend her case in court, so she’s bound to her desk at the firm. Her reading law at an Indian university was made impossible by her (male) classmates. Overall, it really wasn’t easy being a woman back then.
Because she’s a woman and has been through so much in her short lifetime, she connects well with the widows. She, too, knows what it feels like to be caged in a way. For all these personal reasons, Perveen is a champion for women’s rights. She wants to change how society sees women — and that’s just what she sets out to do. This was so refreshing to read. I love strong female characters, and Perveen is definitely one of them! She’s smart, brave, isn’t afraid to take on a challenge, and wants to fight for what’s right! There’s no way I wouldn’t love her.
I didn’t forget about the plot! Plot-wise, this story is absolutely amazing. It’s full of twists and turns and deception. After Perveen starts investigating the will, she notices that everyone is keeping some sort of secret. From people eaves dropping, to children who know more than they let on, to wives with secret wishes and pasts, this book has it all. It’s not until the end that everything is revealed. It’s not very predictable (just a little sometimes 😉) and all the characters’ motivations added up. I didn’t want to put it down!
Have you read or heard about this novel? What do you think of crime novel — your favorites or not your cup of tea? Any recommendations of books that are similar to this one?