Top critical review
Spices and Soft-Hued Romance
on 7 December 2015
Preethi Nair's second novel follows the lives of an Indian mother and daughter in London (with scenes set also in India and Spain) from the 1970s to the present. Maya has a happy childhood in an Indian village, growing up with her mother Nalini and brother Sachin, and various extended family, who support and care for her even after her father leaves the country for a job in London. When the family eventually move to join him in London she's happy there too, living in a big South London house and relishing the strange English food, such as burgers and chips. But then, one day her father disappears, and her mother informs Maya and Sachin that he has died... the family are reduced to poverty, and have to move to a small flat in the East End. Nalini - a resourceful woman, who, it turns out has not told her children the truth about her husband - gets a job and eventually sets up her own business trading in Indian spices, and finds a gentle lover in Ravi, a kind Indian businessman. It seems the family difficulties are over - until a tragedy followed by a shocking revelation leads Maya to realize that her mother has been lying to her for years. Her violent reaction leads her away from England - and her studies in architecture - and to Madrid to work as a fashion designer. It seems she may have cast off her family and her first love, Suri, for good - until some news from Nalini brings her back to confront her past...
As this resume shows, it's a promising story, and there are indeed some good sections. Nair captures Nalini's loneliness, married to an unreliable husband, unable to really communicate with her children, trying to manage by doing the thing she does best (cooking) very well. The scenes involving her friends Maggie and Tom - who have their own secrets - are well written, and Maggie's illness very poignant. There's some good evocations of Indian food, and of the whole Brick Lane area. But all the same - and despite at least one serious tragedy - the novel seemed to me somewhat flimsy and insubstantial. Nair never seemed really interested in exploring why the father behaved as he did, and why Nalini kept lying to her children when she was obviously doing something really risky in choosing this option. I didn't like Maya at all - I found her selfish, loudmouthed and generally irritating, and her refusal to show any understanding for Nalini until the end when (presumably) a trip to India opened her eyes - rather unpleasant. The Madrid scenes were not nearly as detailed and interesting as they could have been, and the Spanish characters all caricatures. The relationship with Suri, though sweet, was also rather predictable. So, all in all, while this was a pleasant and - bearing in mind the subject - surprisingly light read, it didn't leave much of a lasting impression. There are much stronger books out there about the Indian experience in Britain, including Monica Ali's superb 'Brick Lane' and Priya Basil's 'Ishq and Mushq' (which I enjoyed on a second reading).