Hello, friends! Today I’m bringing you a review for an amazing book I got to read as an ARC this month. This was my first try reading a Balli Kaur Jaswall novel, and I’m so happy I did. It had a lot of things I love seeing in books: complex female protagonists, the immigrant experience, family dynamics, and a super interesting setting!
Title: The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters
Author: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Genre: adult, contemporary fiction
Published on April 30th 2019 by William Morrow
Page count: 320 pages
🌼 synopsis 🌼
Rajni, Jezmeen, and Shirina have never been close, even though they are sisters. Living separate lives, each in their own country, and barely keeping in touch, they never thought that they would soon be traveling to India together. When their mother dies and leaves behind a travel itinerary for the girls as her final wish, that is just what the three young women have to do. Arriving in India, they soon figure out buried secrets about their mother, things about themselves, and how to be a proper family at last.
🌼 Disclaimer: I was given a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way affected my judgement. Thank you so much to the publisher for the gift!
There was so much I loved about this novel. I really wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did! It was a very solid four-star read for me, which is great! So let me start off by telling you about the things I loved the most…
🌼I loved the multiple POVs!
Throughout the whole book, we get to read from the perspective of the three sisters. This added so much more depth to the novel, in my opinion.
Since each character is complex and has her own problems to deal with, there was no better way to go about telling this story. Each of the POVs gives us a new insight into the story and immerses us in the plot.
This works especially well because, from the start, we know that the sisters don’t tell each other what is going on in their lives. Were the novel told from just one POV, then we would miss out on learning about these women’s lives, as they’re not reliable sharers.
🌼 The characters are all super interesting.
There isn’t a single sister who is boring or not really interesting to read about. They each have their own things going on, which is great since it adds more variety to the novel.
Shirini is the youngest daughter who, having grown up in the United Kingdom and never visited India, decides to live a more traditional Indian life when she is of age. She gets into an arranged marriage through an online dating website and moves to Australia — both to lose touch with her family back home and to pursue a new life she builds for herself.
Then, there is Jezmeen, the middle sister who is trying out her hand at acting — but for the moment is laying low to avoid a public scandal. I won’t reveal what the scandal is, but I loved learning about it! Jezmeen is such a troubled and adorable character. Her mom never approved of her acting career, and that really shows in Jezmeen’s character. In the end, she’s a fighter — and I really loved seeing that.
Lastly, Rajni is probably the most interesting character. She was born in the United Kingdom, but still visited India, grew up around Indian norms, and was old enough to remember her dad before he passed away. Because of all these things, you can really see how much she hates being associated with India and not England. The first-generation immigrant experience really is portrayed gracefully in her. I’ll get back to that point!
🌼 The setting is beautifully described — both the good and the bad
The whole novel (well, except for that first chapter) is set in India. Since this is a travel novel of sorts, several locations in India are explored here. From the South all the way up to the North, Balli gives us a thorough description of what India looks like.
I was expecting for the streets to be described in a visual way, for the food and smells to be featured prominently, and for the people the three women encounter along the way to be shown to us, too. And that is exactly what we got. I was salivating reading about all the delicious foods the women ate in all parts of India. And I was longing for a long train ride through the Indian countryside just by reading Balli’s descriptions. In the end, I really want to visit India now — even more so than I did before!
But what I wasn’t expecting, however, was for the author to also make room for the less good stuff of the country. I’ve read a lot of novels set in places outside of Europe and the United States that linger only on the paradisiac aspects of the country. And of course there’s a reason why the authors have chosen that strategy! Which is exactly what surprised me about this novel.
The author brings up India’s problems with modernity in great length. Especially the problems that affect women’s and girl’s lives. From rapes that happen in broad daylight to arranged and forced marriages, Balli paints a picture of India that is not all about the beautiful, but about the ugly too. I thought this was incredibly well done. It truly gives India the complexity it deserves and makes it more interesting to read about. It’s not paradise — it’s a country that has its amazing, beautiful parts and its more shameful parts like all other countries do.
🌼 The sister-sister relationship was amazing to read about
Shirina, Jezmeel, and Rajni definitely don’t have the best relationship at the beginning. It goes back a long way, and it’s one of those adult relationships that has been this way for so long that you just… forget how things were before.
But as their mother’s last wish before she passed was for the sisters to get back together, spend time in each other’s company, and become friends again, at least they make an effort. And god, what a beautiful thing to see.
I loved how complicated their sibling relationship was. They each blame one another for the state of things, for how their mom, dad, and other family ties wore off, and for just about anything that goes wrong on the trip. But as more and more time goes on, living in close quarters makes them get closer at last.
I’m a sucker for complicated family relationships, and this book definitely struck a chord in me on that note. The sisters go from very hostile to something else (but good!) even if on the way there they had to get over a lot of problems! If you’re looking for a complex adult family relationship done really well, look no further than this novel.
🌼 A memorable portrayal of tradition-modernity in an immigrant’s life
Perhaps the highlight of the whole novel was this: how the author portrayed the conflict between tradition and modernity in an immigrant’s life. The three characters that show embody this struggle the clearest are Rajni, Shirina, and their mother.
As an Indian woman born and raised in India, moving to the United Kingdom was not easy on the mother, as you can imagine. Having to leave behind family, friends, customs, and your day-to-day routine is not easy on anyone. So when she reaches the United Kingdom, she needs to adapt to the ways of life there. As you can imagine, the mother is never completely happy about her new home. To her, women are too loose, teenagers too disrespectful, and modernity too modern.
On the other hand, we have Rajni, the eldest sister of the bunch and the first to be raised in the United Kingdom. While she wasn’t directly transplanted from India like her mother was, living with the duality India/British was never easy on her. Rajni got bullied for her ethnicity, for the food she ate, and for being different from other kids. While outside the home she must comfort to British norms, at home she is thrown back into an Indian world. I loved seeing how difficult and painful this transition and living as a hybrid was hard on her — so interesting! Seeing her completely reject her Indian ancestry and try to Britishize herself more than anyone else would have to broke my heart into a million pieces.
Finally, we have Shirina, the complete opposite. Shirina never feels confident with her “British” label and struggles to get back into an Indian culture she never experienced outside the home in first place. This makes a lot of sense once you think about it, and if you keep it in mind, then her actions will make a whole lot more sense.
It’s this constant struggle for the negotiation of a single identity (British? Indian? Hybrid?) that makes the whole plot all the more interesting. How can each of the women retain their Indian heritage when parts of it are criticized by modernity and by Britain itself?
🌼 Retaining one’s identity when displaced
Another major subplot in the novel is how to stay true to one’s origins while at the same time trying to be accepted into a community that is foreign. Rajni and her mother go through this the most, and it is clearly as issue that defines their personalities in the end.
The mother is stuck on her Indian ways at home — cooking, cleaning, raising her daughters, making her husband happy — but being British outside of it. Despite having lived for most of her life in the UK, she still retains a lot from her life back in India. Clearly not all, but a significant portion.
****Spoiler**** When her husband’s family comes to visit from India, they are appalled at how “un-Indian” she now is. She drives a car, she has a job, she is completely subservient to her husband. In their minds, she has turned British and betrayed them all. Of course that, at the same time, others can’t see her as British, but rather as an Indian. Thus, she finds herself stuck between a rock and a hard place — what can she do???
Rajni is also someone trying to come up with a British-Indian identity of her own. Something that mixes both. And this is obviously no piece of cake! Being far from “home” (ancestral home) is stopping her from being Indian alongside being British.
This makes for the most amazing dynamics within the book and also asks the reader to really look at these issues and think of them as worth discussing.
🌼 Modernity, being a woman, and tradition
This last point I want to bring up is how modern ideas of what being a woman is conflict with traditional views of womanhood. As there is always a struggle between what is Indian and what is British, and what is right and to be preserved and what is wrong and needs to be innovated, there is also a huge struggle between these two views of womanhood.
In the Indian culture their mother comes from, a good woman is the one who goes on to be a loyal and obeying wife. She cooks, she lets her family choose her husband for her, and she doesn’t speak up. In a way, this is the model of womanhood that Shirina falls into when she wishes for a traditional Indian marriage.
However, in the Britain the three girls (or women) grow up in, that is seen as old-fashioned. Rather, the idea of women as free agents with the ability to decide what happens to their fate prevails and is lauded.
So how do you find a middle ground that can coexist with both your heritages? How can you be at once an Indian woman and a British woman? How can tradition and modernity exist at once without destroying one another? This book has definitely left me asking myself these very questions…