Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy
Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Reviewed By: Afrah Jamal
Published in Daily Times / Saturday, January 29, 2011
Published under the title: Family Matters
Reprinted in The News Today
Posted in SouthAsianMediaNet
Quoted in Shilpi Somaya Gowdas Website
Reposted on Shilpi Somaya Gowda's Facebook
Secret Daughter mixes compelling drama with daring social commentary to create a powerful narrative that speaks a universal language. First time author Shilpi Gowda’s summer job volunteering at an Indian orphanage provided the inspiration for this fictional tale. This is a story of origins — alternating between themes of abandonment, alienation, female infanticide and cultural identity.
This ambitious venture juggles multiple storylines with dexterity in a well-choreographed performance with a plot that takes 21 years to develop. It goes back and forth between a poor Indian couple living a life of quiet desperation half way across the globe and a rich American-Indian pair living the American dream. The couples are polar opposites in every way but they have been bound together by a daughter. American Somer and Indian Kris are doctors whose meet-cute is typical that takes an unexpected turn when they adopt a child from an Indian orphanage.
Birth parents of Asha are victims of circumstances who make questionable choices (they hail from a society one where one is burdened with a girl but blessed with a boy) and lead unremarkable lives. Yet the book keeps them in sight, to establish the sacrifices made by the birth mother, to watch the father chase mirages of a good life in the ‘big city’, using them as a conduit to stream all the negativity and misery surrounding the forsaken. These two represent the nameless, faceless majority standing on the sidelines whose dreams have been swallowed by the abyss.
Shilpi Gowda’s thought-provoking novel is not a black and white portrait that is content with assigning traditional roles or promoting stereotypes. The mother-in-law does not come with a broomstick, the brute will redeem himself, and the underdogs will get a chance to shine.
Shilpi has cast a wide net. A lot of cultural debris gets caught up. It serves to illustrate some critical social issues: the unadorned truth about life on the streets in a third world nation, how little girls are disposable and glittering cities harbour dark secrets.
The book exposes the social chasm that exists within the Indian society, which the poor are unable to bridge. Other third world nations can relate to it. She even manages to give India’s infamous slums a major role in a way that the keeps the readers interest from flagging. Surprisingly, none of this encroaches upon the individual stories running in parallel.
Both the father and the adopted daughter are carriers of a dual identity and their story is propelled forward by a different set of parameters. Kris, who distanced himself from his roots suffers from bouts of nostalgia seeking refuge in memories of home. At one point Somer’s natural horror of an alien culture and her unnatural resistance keeps raising the invisible barriers and end up becoming a direct cause of familial angst. Asha’s curiosity about her birth parents and heritage provides an ideal opportunity to bring forth the contrasts between her life of privilege and the one she narrowly avoided.
The writer, born and raised in Canada, builds a bridge over the two worlds that allows both sides to cross over and celebrate (not fear) diversity. This is a beautifully crafted masterpiece by a gifted narrator who has embedded complex themes into a simple story in a way that makes it entertaining and educational at the same time. Despite its grim beginning, tidy little ending and raw imagery, it is a timeless tale that stands apart for its easy narrative style, insightful observations and unflinching portrayals.
Aside from a graphic scene of miscarriage, the book stays in PG-13 territory. While it deconstructs the mysticism surrounding the eastern culture, at its core lies a heartfelt story that strives to heal the breach between East and West. Secret Daughter is already a bestseller and has earned rave reviews in the international arena. It will be released in Pakistan in February 2011.
William Morrow; Pp 352; $ 17.99