Sunday, October 17, 2010

Secret Daughter

After my recent move, I made a rare Coscto run to stock up on some of my essentials. Laundry detergent, tea, and hummas, as well as some unnecessary items like cutting boards and popcorn machines. Needing to get a new book, and wanting to save myself a trip, I found myself circling the long and fully stocked book table at Costco. I picked books up, read summaries, continually replacing the ones in my hands with different ones down the line, until I came to this weeks choice, Secret Daughter. First time author, Shilpi Somaya Gowda, brings to life two opposing but heart rending concerns to jump start her novel, infertility for North American women and the disregard for girls in India. This compelling story is an intimate portrait of family, culture, and the importance of understanding your heritage, and it gracefully weaves together the transcending relationships between a mother and her child.

On the eve of the monsoons, in a remote Indian village, Kavita gives birth to Asha. But in a culture that favours sons, the only way for Kavita to save her newborn daughter's life is to give her away. It is a decision that will haunt her and her husband for the rest of their lives, even after the arrival of their cherished son. Halfway around the globe, Somer, an American doctor, decides to adopt a child after making the wrenching discovery that she will never have one of her own. When she and her husband Krishnan see a photo of baby Asha from a Mumbai orphanage, they are overwhelmed with emotion for her. Somer knows life will change with the adoption, but is convinced that the love they already feel will overcome all obstacles. Interweaving the stories of Kavita, Somer, and the child that binds both of their destinies, Secret Daughter poignantly explores issues of culture and belonging. Moving between two worlds and two families, one struggling to survive in the fetid slums of Mumbai, the other grappling to forge a cohesive family despite their diverging cultural identities, this powerful debut novel explores the emotional terrain of motherhood, loss, identity, and love.

On the surface, this is the story of a child born in terrible circumstances, the twist of fate that changes her life, and her adolescent search for self that creates ripples with the people who surround her. Yet there are many more layers to this novel. There is great complexity in the relationships between parent and child, and husband and wife, making them both realistic and heartbreaking. There are the questions of class, education, gender and culture in our globalized society, so beautifully illustrated through two seemingly opposite families. The characters are imperfect, but they all learn and grow through their experiences.

Gowda does a wonderful job of showing the cultural discrepancies of Indian life, its diametrically polar aspects. Indians live either in dire poverty or with great wealth. The slums are vividly drawn, such that you can almost smell, touch and taste the florid poverty, pulling us deep into a culture that most of us have only glimpsed. There is a much larger population of adult men than women in India and the fact that female children are killed at birth or aborted is shown as a routine event in the lives of the poor. Though India is the seat of great advancements in technology, many people live without electricity or basic utilities. Education is valued highly but the poor have little access to it. Children from poor families either work at home in caretaking roles or are on the streets begging. It is rare that a poor Indian child gets to go to school.

This is an intelligent and vibrant novel. With lyrical prose, and clear, precise details, the Two India's are richly portrayed. The emotion of the characters was palpable and thoughtfully crafted, with every emotional reaction garnered from the reader, and the Indian terms sprinkled throughout the pages gave it a feeling of authenticity, without distracting from the story. Gowda's writing is powerful, her prose poetic, and the end result an emotional read.

I always love when you get a deeper insight into yourself, or even better, someone in your life from reading a book or watching a movie. It seems these little revelations arise when you are least expecting them, and the usually come from an unexpected source. My Mom was adopted, and although I have often heard her wonder aloud where she gets her curly hair, or the same nose that I have inherited, I never really understood what it would be like to not know your birth parents, or the emotions that would arise knowing you were given up for adoption. This novel gave me a small glimpse into that alien world I never never been able to understand befor

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