Published in 2012 by Peepal Tree Press.
Amira Vidhur, an educated, upper-class Indo-Trinidadian, migrates with her husband and three daughters to Mill Hill, London, in the 1970s. Life in this charming suburb is far from unassuming, and Amira must adapt quickly to the vast differences in culture and expectation. Striving to be a dutiful wife, wise mother, friendly neighbor, accomplished gardener and, in the midst of all this, a self-sufficient woman, Amira’s journey is often met by challenges. She seeks the counsel of her bossy elder sister Ishani, a Trinidad-based businesswoman who has remained home to run the family store. Despite Ishani’s often comically-phrased advice, Amira learns that she must chart her own path, in uncertain territory, with lessons she’s learned while on Trinidadian soil.
Readers often expect that stories strongly populated by female characters will be rooted, for better or worse, in domestic issues and an excess of emotion. Though the concerns of home and family play a vital part in Lakshmi Persaud’s newest novel, Daughters of Empire, they cannot be said to rule it, either. Amira is the predominant narrator, yet space is made for the perspectives of other women to shine through: not just Ishani’s voice is heard, but also the voices of Amira’s three daughters, Anjali, Satisha and Vidya. Dedicating itself to the span of generations, Persaud’s tale traces the journeys of these women, and others, as they do battle with society’s demands. Injustices are experienced on a minor and massive scale; these heroines are betrayed, scarred and manipulated, but it is their own sense of community and personal strength that encourages them to persist. The blueprint of Amira’s resilience becomes a mantle taken up by each of her daughters in distinct ways. It is especially intriguing to see how the three Vidhur children hold fast to their parents’ ideals, and how they create their own mottos for survival, too.
Written in a sweetly engaging style, Daughters of Empire shies away from the gritty, harsh narrative structure that defines so much of contemporary fiction. Persaud could be partially likened to a Caribbean Jane Austen, underscoring the deepest of issues with a light, graceful hand. If the novel sometimes reads like a giddy comedy of errors, it is worth noting that it confronts questions of race, class, gender, xenophobia and spirituality, from a series of outlooks. The reader will find her assumptions challenged on even the simplest of matters, finding out in the process that sometimes the least refined arguments are the ones most worth having.
Past and present, England and Trinidad, rural country roads and commercial city centres: this is a novel of polarities, of opposite ends finding unexpected meeting places. Persaud’s storytelling is more sophisticated than mere comparison, though; it also considers this: how do we live ‘abroad’, when these foreign landscapes are swiftly becoming our homes? When her happiness is threatened, Amira wonders, “She was living at the close of the twentieth century and still following her mother’s way. But how could you stop the past walking beside you?”
There is, admittedly, a way in which the Vidhur clan loves, admires and respects its members that seems a little too perfectly… satisfying. At certain sections of the novel’s progress, one is forced to consider whether or not this dynamic, self-sufficient band of brilliant and multi-talented individuals can’t weather every obstacle that life slings in their direction. Amends are made frequently in Persaud’s narrative, with seemingly effortless elan, scripted with the most cloying of diplomacies. If this is not how people reconcile in reality, the reader may well conclude, then, by Shiva’s trident, they damned well should.
Natural beauty is everywhere in Daughters of Empire, often unearthed in the most unlikely of places. The persistence of Nature and the constant rhythms of the seasons act in contrast to the unstable currents of human interaction, a reminder that the world continues to revolve while we ponder its mysteries. In the fragrant, delicious meals that Amira prepares, there is a richness of flavour and texture that woos even her most reluctant of neighbours to her London dinner table. Similarly, Amira’s old teachers who run a cookery school in rural Trinidad channel this knowledge, passing it on to their students: that an appreciation for the art of cooking can influence one’s entire life positively.
“They learned about the fibres, textures and flavours of vegetables, meats, fish and spices… the structure of the fibres, the strength of the raw materials’ natural flavours influenced the choice of spices as well as the methods of cooking… they began to transfer this training to their lives and their dealings with those they encountered. Methods of cooking became the methods of communicating with others, how to speak to bring understanding […] They had been laying the foundations for them to reinvent themselves as well as recipes.”
The earth is filled with this untapped splendour, Persaud’s novel seems to suggest, and it remains the reward of those who seek beauty with unfailing honesty and appreciation, asking nothing in return. In this way, Amira, who once described herself as “still in the infant class on how to live a good life”, and the other remarkable women she loves, are able to navigate their own courses confidently, reminding themselves that there is goodness at the heart of most, if not all things.
A marginally shorter version of this review first appeared in the Trinidad Guardian‘s Sunday Arts Section on October 7th, 2012, entitled ‘Caribbean Jane Austen’ novel tackles hard questions.