‘An Indian household can no more be governed peacefully without dignity and prestige, than an Indian Empire’ The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, Flora Annie Steel & Grace Gardiner
Magda is a former scientist with a bad temper and a sharp tongue, living alone in a huge house by the sea. Confined to a wheelchair, her once spotless home crumbling around her, she gets through carers at a rate of knots.
Until Susheela arrives, bursting through the doors of Magda’s house, carrying life with her: grief for her mother’s recent death; worry for her father; longing for a beautiful and troubled young man.
The two women strike up an unlikely friendship: Magda’s old-fashioned, no-nonsense attitude turns out to be an unexpected source of strength for Susheela; and Susheela’s Bengali heritage brings back memories of Magda’s childhood in colonial India and resurrects the tragic figure of her mother, Evelyn, and her struggle to fit within the suffocating structure of the Raj’s ruling class.
But as Magda digs deeper into her past, she unlocks a shocking legacy of blood that threatens to destroy the careful order she has imposed on her life – and that might just be the key to give the three women, Evelyn, Magda and Susheela, a place they can finally call home.
Dignity by Alys Conran Review
A powerful story of race, class, culture and what it means to be “home”.
I love stories set in a different time and place, stories that captivate me and transport me to another world. If they are thought-provoking and challenge me to reconsider my beliefs and assumptions, so much the better. Dignity is certainly a book that ticks those boxes.
Dignity is set partly in British India in the 1940’s during the dying days of the Raj and partly in the present day. It’s a powerful story dealing with race, class, culture and what it means to be “home”.
The story is told through three main characters from different generations; Magda, Susheela and Evelyn. Each character has a very distinctive, authentic voice and the part of the book set in India under British rule almost feels like it could have been a separate book in its own right, so different is the style.
Dignity depicts very clearly life within the Raj. My grandfather lived in India in the 1940’s and I have heard many stories about life there at that time which crossmatch perfectly with the descriptions in this book. It gives a real sense of the privilege but also strict social order that the wives and children of British officials lived under.
Magda is the central character, appearing in both parts of the book. Her childhood in British India was tightly constrained by what was deemed proper by colonial society. When she is sent “Home” to school, Magda struggles dreadfully to fit in and is teased by the other children and even the teachers for her lack of independence after growing up surrounded by servants.
In the present day, Magda is struggling to come to terms with the loss of independence that comes with old age. Highly educated and a successful scientist, Magda has strong ideas about how things should be done but is no longer able do it and is forced to sit and watch her once immaculate home crumble and decay around her. She is reliant on carers but her sharp tongue and stubbornness make her unpopular with them.
Susheela is a student who is funding her studies by working part-time as a carer. She has recently lost her mother, her father has fallen apart, she has just found out that she is pregnant and her boyfriend has left her. Life is not going well.
On the surface, she and Magda seem to have little in common. They are worlds apart in terms of generation, class and culture. However, an unlikely friendship develops between the two women.
Evelyn is Magda’s mother. When we first meet her, she is a young newlywed on her way to join her husband, a British official, in India. When she arrives, she is overwhelmed by all the new rules and constraints of colonial society but she is full of hope and optimism for married life.
However, Evelyn’s husband very quickly shows his true colours and Evelyn discovers that she is trapped far from home with a man whom she despises. Life in India wears her down and Evelyn herself notes that there are two versions of her – Evelyn Roberts, the bright, warm-hearted young school teacher and Mrs Benedict Worsal Compton, the cold, bitter, lonely Memsahib.
The three women’s stories are tightly woven together and there are strong parallels between them. The theme of dignity repeats again and again in all of the stories and through all of the characters, not just the three central women.
Dignity is a thought-provoking, powerful read which will stay with you long after you have closed the final page.
(Many thanks to Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting us to take part in this blog tour.)
Published by: W&N