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Book review: The Forgotten Daughter by Renita D’Silva

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I chose this book from the Om Bookshop in Phoenix Mall, Mumbai, because after visiting India twice recently I’m keen to discover lesser-known contemporary novelists writing about the country.

The story starts with Nisha, a young British-Indian woman, shortly after her parents’ unexpected death. She has always lived in England and feels no connection to India, never having visited – as far as she knew. But the discovery that she was adopted from a Catholic convent near Mangalore sends her on a journey, both physical and emotional, to find out more about her early childhood.

There are three main characters – Nisha, Shilpa and Devi – and we gradually find out how they are connected as we follow Nisha in her efforts to find her biological parents.

After such a short time in India I’m still not fully au fait with koilolis, idlis or chicken sukka, but I can certainly appreciate D’Silva’s rich, multi-sensual picture of life in a small Indian village. She uses food, colours and aromas to paint vivid images in the mind’s eye with great skill. She also does an excellent job of showing us three key characters with quite different personalities. They all face challenges relating to love and relationships; they all have experiences of motherhood to convey from the perspective of mother, daughter or both.

Sometimes Nisha’s lines of dialogue can seem a little stilted – which British person would say “It would have been different had they been writing a scientific paper” instead of “… if they’d been writing a scientific paper”, for example, and who talks out loud about “The vivid smells which accost my nose”? – but those few moments are quickly forgotten in the sweep of the story.

D’Silva brings all the threads together with perfect timing, keeping the reader guessing for just long enough before showing us how the next piece of the puzzle fits in. The plot never gets confusing yet it’s not too predictable either. My only criticism is that the ending doesn’t quite work for me – it seems a little too symmetrical, if I was going to be very fussy – but I strongly suspect that might just be a personal thing!

My verdict: if you want a taste of India, either as a reminder or a new experience, you can’t do much better than this. Don’t be put off if you’re not into ‘motherhood’ as a theme. This book is about love, loss, difficult decisions, personal growth and what people are capable of – themes that can resonate with anyone. Four stars out of five.

4 stars

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