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Handout

  • Title: Secret Lives of Mothers and Daughters
  • Author: Anita Kushwaha
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Harper Avenue
  • Pages: 368

We are surrounded by climate calamity that feels inevitable – it is so far out of the individual person’s hands, but it seems to me few writers today are willing to really engage with tragedy. True tragedy, I mean, the kind where a character is not just the victim of rotten circumstance, but they make a choice that reveals a flaw, and that choice narrows future choices, and so the noose tightens until the end feels like fate. Maybe we get our catharsis from TV crime dramas now and want something else from fiction.

Anita Kushwaha’s new novel does not go all the way in its devastation – there are a few dead bodies, but Secret Lives of Mothers and Daughters ends on a happy note – although it does explore a central flaw over multiple generations, as well-meaning women keep secrets that unintentionally lead to disastrous consequences.

Secret Lives concerns two sets of mothers and daughters, both families of the Indian diaspora in Ottawa. The novel opens with Nandini and her daughter, Asha, who the day after her 18th birthday learns she was adopted. We then meet Veena and daughter, Mala, as both are still grieving the unexpected death in the family that has interrupted Mala’s doctoral work at Carleton.

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While it’s true that this novel is about identity, as Asha struggles with the news of her adoption and where it leaves her, it is not identity in the sense of belonging or not belonging in Canada the way diasporic lit often frames it. Some characters feel the pull of tradition, respectability and community expectation more than others, but this is background to the main conflicts. Be ready for those conflicts to be mostly internalized, as these women withhold their true feelings, mistaken in the belief that this helps their loved ones. Sometimes the truth hurts, but it’s nothing like the long-term, possibly irreparable harm of keeping quiet.

As this novel is about what remains undisclosed, I have to be necessarily vague in describing it. This leads me to my main criticism, which is that Secret Lives tells too much too early on. When Asha’s parents come clean with her about her adoption, they give Asha a letter from her birth mother, which we read in chapter two. This letter reveals enough that a third of the way in I’d realized the novel’s big, overarching mystery. Perhaps this was intentional on the author’s part, but as a reader, I felt I got ahead of the story and there wasn’t enough intrigue to entice me further.

Related to this structural issue I think is the emotional pitch of the novel. We meet our main characters at a moment of relatively high emotion and it never really lets up for them. That leaves little room for a sense of climax at the end. I wonder if moving the letter even to the middle of the book might have improved the pacing as well as the emotional range of the novel.

In Secret Lives, experiences mirror between generations, which sometimes works, sometimes not. For example, some families do exhibit a genetic predisposition to depression. Talking about that shared experience can help alleviate depression’s loneliness and self-blame, whereas keeping mum leaves everyone to cope – well or not – on her own. In a story in which staying quiet is the modus operandi, it makes sense that multiple generations of women in one family feel the walls closing in around them. The storyline of two women finding moral strength in reading Jane Eyre also isn’t a stretch.

But when the love interests of mother and daughter serve up the same stupid excuse for their actions (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there), it all starts to feel a little too neat. Kushwaha’s previous novel, 2018’s Side by Side, about a sister’s unravelling after the suicide of her brother, was not as tidy as this, and I liked it better for that.

There’s plenty of good material in Secret Lives of Mothers and Daughters and its central idea rings true. It’s that as I was reading, I had an idea of what this could have been, reworked. I want to read that novel.

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