Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Some novels have strong openings followed by a memorable crescendo, only to peter out in the last third of the narrative. Anita Kushwaha's Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters does the opposite. So much so that the last 130 pages would be brilliant as a stand-alone story. This is not to say that Kushwaha lacks skill or voice in the early chapters. Her prose is accomplished and polished throughout the novel, but the strength of the author's voice shared between the two main characters Mala, the birth mother, and Asha, her daughter adopted by a caring family, really only comes together as the parallel plots accelerate toward the end.
Asha, who has just turned 18, discovers that she is adopted. While her adoptive parents have provided her with a wonderful life, she is distraught that they have kept the secret of her adoption for so long. She embarks on a journey to unravel the circumstances of her birth. Along the way, she makes her own life mistakes. The readers, who are privy to the parallel plot of her mother Mala are always several steps ahead of Asha who fades in and out of the former's story. A graduate student with a promising academic career ahead of her, Mala is devastated by her father's unexpected death. Her closest friend is a male graduate student. In her grief, Mala's feelings for the young man grow beyond friendship, but he is committed to someone else. Her silent love prepares the ground for the tragedy that will befall her. While Mala's story overshadows Asha's for most of the novel, there is considerable fluidity in the thought processes and feelings of mother and daughter. At times, both seem to merge into a single being almost as if one is reincarnated into the other. It is this blended voice which brings to the story true literary merit.
On the surface, what occurs to both mother and daughter is a story told a thousand times, indeed a trope in romance literature. But to describe Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters as a romance novel would be unfair. There is a metaphysical sense of love in the writing, one which floats across the time transitions and through the inner thoughts of the mother and daughter. Their points of view dance like the reflections of a mirrored room in a carnival, which Kushwaha then deftly reassembles as the omniscient confidant of both women.
The story of Mala and Asha is set in contemporary Ottawa where Kushwaha lives. Its passages occur at the university she attended, the coffee shops she certainly frequented, the grey and promising halls of academia, in which she too has excelled. The existential questions in the plot mirror her own Indo-Canadian upbringing: the cross-walk between old-country values and new-country freedom, of love outside of one's community. Kushwaha writes what she knows, but does so in such harmonious prose that her story-telling rises to a level of universalism. Having met this author on several occasions, I am not surprised at how quickly she has emerged as a prominent writer. Her gift is the infusion of her soft yet sparkling personality into stories whose tragedy challenges the readers to their emotional core.
Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters is not without its faults though. As noted above, it takes far too long to engage the reader. At times, the strong imagery of the novel is undermined by a few excursions into purple prose and the use of obscure words. The constant references to the English classic, Jane Eyre, are unnecessary—the author's point is made quite early in the novel. These are minor points—smudges on a manuscript, which should have been corrected by more diligent editing. They detract very little from the overall impact of the story on readers nor from the promise of Kushwaha emerging as one of Canada's most important fiction writers.
Secret Live of Mothers & Daughters is published by Harper Avenue, an imprint of HarperCollins Canada.