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Monday, June 1, 2015

The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal, book review: A tale of life, love and surrogacy

How would an artist portray Meera Syal? Perhaps figuratively, as Durga, the Hindu Goddess with many arms carrying flowers, conches and weapons, strong yet susceptible, mischievous, wise and womanly. Syal is a theatre and screen actor, comedienne, screenwriter and author. Oh, and a wonderful singer too. I have known her for several years, admire (and sometimes bitterly envy) her profuse talents.

Her first novel Anita and Me (1997), based on her own childhood in a small Midlands village, is now a GCSE text. Beautifully written, funny and poignant, it was made into a film, as was her next novel, Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee, about three Asian women in their 30s. The archetypal story of female bonds and treacheries had great reviews, got on to the bestseller list. I didn't share the widespread enthusiasm, maybe because I don't care for friend gangs, never have done.

But this new novel had me gripped. It has the verve of Anita and Me but is more intense and knowing. Syal's writing is finer, contemplative and layered. Beneath the pacy narrative and emotional journeys thrum observations about youth and age, East and West, wealth and poverty, love and sex, pain, joy and resilience.

The central character, Shyama, 48, is a lone Asian mother of a teenage daughter, and has a young lover, Toby. They want a child, go for IVF tests. The doctor gives her the bad news: she has no eggs, so can't have a baby. As her hopes are dashed, Shyama's internal monologue takes over: silly old woman of modest means falls for a predictably handsome younger man without a steady career. She gets an ego boost and boundless energy in bed; he gets use of the house, the car, the soft-mattress landing of her unspoken gratitude. He kisses the scars left from a disastrous marriage. Cruel fate and biology cannot stop her; the dream lives on. Shyama decides to try surrogacy in India.

The heroine, like others in Syal's books, deals with pain and disappointments and comes through, still able to laugh out loud. When sorrow washes in, humour and wit stop it flooding the pages. The idea for the story came from a TV documentary about the booming surrogacy industry in India. Western couples turn up at smart new health clinics, pay their money, get a young, impecunious woman to have their child, take the bundle and fly off home. Everyone wins, or so the story goes.

Sometimes the Indian mother donates her eggs and gets even more cash. Back in the village, the surrogate keeps her secret. Money gives her status in the family and community. It sounds easy, but isn't. Some parents believe this is only a business transaction and treat the surrogate as if she is a hired reproductive machine; some mums cannot quell their maternal feelings and can't let go.

Mala, the chosen babymaker, is a superbly drawn character. Enigmatic and complicated, she goes from being powerless to immensely powerful, without meaning to. Shyama's stroppy daughter Tara and the naive Toby are also totally convincing.

The book moves between India and the UK, dives in and out of subplots and teems with people. At times they crowd out the main, compelling story. The ending ties things up with a nice bow, strives too hard to be upbeat. That said, this is a delicately written, profound study of the female condition in the rich world and the poor. The gifted Syal does it again. And I go green all over.


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