*Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I have to applaud authors who are able to make their stories feel sinister from the very first page. To the point where you are almost holding your breath expecting something bad to happen. You feel the darkness trying to creep its way to the surface and so you keep reading and waiting for the story to go full dark force on you. I waited, I read and unfortunately this book fell flat for me in the end. Did it go full dark force on me? It sure did. This book is dark, but the wrap up of the story did nothing for me.
(picture from @khanlibrary)
“Truth was a shifting, shy thing, like sunlight changing from moment to moment, unknowable even if you spent your life in the heart of it.” – Anita Rau Badami.
Anu is a forty-something woman looking for a secluded retreat to write her book. She comes across the Dharma family’s “back-house” in the quiet town of Merrit’s Point and decides it will be the perfect place to spend some alone time writing. She gets to know the Dharma family and soon realizes there is something sinister happening in their household.
The Dharma family consists of the Vikram, the head of the household who was once married to a wild and free woman named Helen, who tragically died in a car crash leaving behind a daughter, Varsha. Vikram remarried by arranging a marriage for himself in India. He brings Suman from the warmth of India, to his cold and quiet town. It is not long before Suman has a child of her own and becomes trapped in her new life with her possessive stepdaughter, needy son and violent husband.
With the arrival of Anu as a tenant, Suman finds a friend and confidant. While Vikram is at work and the kids are at school, Anu visits Suman and Vikram’s mother, Akka, as they share stories over tea. With time, Anu starts realizing that there is not only something wrong with Vikram, but with his daughter Varsha as well. Varsha will stop at nothing to keep her family together and protect all of their secrets. When tragedy strikes and questions are asked, secrets start exposing themselves and threatening to break apart a family that was already hanging by a thread.
I think the author did a fantastic job painting a picture of what domestic abuse does to children. In my opinion, the only strong, well developed characters in this book are the children.
Varsha is a thirteen-year-old girl with so much darkness in her. She was raised in a violent environment. She observed violence and experienced it herself. Seeing excuses made for her father’s abusive ways somehow embeds the idea in her head that sometimes extreme measures need to be taken to keep a family together. Something you see her do time and time again in the book. I’ll be honest, this girl creeped me out! I kept thinking something is not right with this girl, and I kept reading just to figure her out. She somehow reminded me of those crazy villains in slasher movies who are hiding in closets with a huge knife. Don’t worry she doesn’t do this….or does she? (evil laugh). No, she doesn’t but she gives off that kind of vibe.
Hemant is seven-years-old and your heart will break for him. He grasps onto any form of love given to him and is constantly battling with the secret thoughts he has about how his father and sister are bad people. While at times I felt like I was reading a perspective of a much older person rather than a seven-year-old, I still think that his character came a long way in terms of growth.
My heart did hurt for Suman as I read about what her life was once like and how it is reduced to daily violence. The author does a good job in showing how Suman feels suffocated in a loveless marriage and in an isolated cold town. She misses her culture, her family and the happiness she felt when she was free to live as she wished. The problem with this character is that I saw no growth. I was rooting for her every step of the way but I felt like her storyline did not progress much. Even with the arrival of Anu and their growing friendship, I felt like there really seemed to be no point to her perspective in the story as nothing was happening. While Anu was an interesting addition, I did not feel like I knew her well towards the end of the story. I felt no connection to her despite the fact that she plays a central role in the story.
Akka, the kid’s grandmother, was a very interesting character and had the potential to be so much more. Here is a woman that told stories without sugarcoating them for the youngsters. She spoke openly and freely. The scenes with her in them gave the story some life and I really believe that if she was given more depth and space she would have taken the story further. I felt like her storyline was just left hanging and I was sitting there asking “But where did Akka go? Can Akka come back?”. I’ll admit I mainly wanted her back because she seemed to have her own chilling secret. I guess the author left it open to interpretation for the readers.
While this book did keep me engaged for the most part, I was disappointed in how everything was wrapped up in the end. The story was very bleak and I would have hoped to see some flicker of hope for the characters, but I did not. I felt like after everything I had been through with these characters, we were all left hanging. I finished the book feeling mainly annoyed by the potential the story had to be so much more.
The mystery presented in the very first chapter also added an element of suspense but after a while there was no more urgency for that particular part of the story. Despite all this, I do think the book had some very important take away messages about how a home environment can really shape children’s personalities in ways we could never imagine. Give this book a try if you like books that explore culture and family secrets with a light mystery.
p.s. I’m still haunted by that girl in this book. There is a reason why I avoid horror movies with children in them (or all horror movies, period).