Book Review by Rakhi Dalal
Title: Sisterhood of Swans
Author: Selma Carvalho
Publishers: Speaking Tiger Books
To feel a kind of belongingness, to find acceptance in a society is an inherent human desire. Perhaps this desire stems from the need to strengthen alliance with something larger than individual identities. It is not only family, but also the place we live in, the community we come from, as well as the prevalent societal and cultural norms which fall into this ambit for most of us. Sometimes the scales in life do not balance till this desire remains elusive. More so when one makes home a place not native to the community one belongs to.
Selma Carvalho is a British-Asian writer whose work explores the themes of migration, memory and belonging. She is the author of three non-fiction books documenting the Goan presence in colonial East Africa. She led the Oral Histories of British – Goans Project (2011-2014) funded by UK Heritage Lottery Fund. Her stories have been published in various journals and anthologies. She is the editor of two volumes of The Brave New World of Goan Writing & Art (2018 and 2020). Her work has been shortlisted for various literary prizes including London Short Story Prize and the New Asian Writing Prize. She is the winner of the Leicester Writes Prize 2018 and a finalist for prestigious SI Leeds Literary Prize 2018. Sisterhood of Swans, her debut novel, was shortlisted for Mslexia Novella Prize 2018 in the UK.
Carvalho’s book explores the complexities around this desire to belong and yet the inability to fully embrace the possibilities a place offers because of conceived notions a propos the idea of identity. Her writing, traversing the world of immigrant Indian community in London, is focused upon anxieties and their repercussions, as experienced by a second generation immigrant. Anna-Marie Souza is plagued by a yearning to belong and to hold onto the familiar. Her restlessness stems not only from the inescapability of ethnic alienation, being a Goan-Indian in Horton, but also from the inevitable suffering caused by her parents’ separation.
Consequently, she longs to find a soul mate, a bond for life. In her relationships, first with Nathu and then with Sanjay, she seeks a father figure, a man in whom she may find a resemblance of her father. The choices Anna-Marie makes are flawed and she carries on with them even while understanding that they might be doomed for failure.
The men in Anna-Marie’s world are all adulterers, diving into new relationships and then abandoning their families to move onto other women. It appears almost like a cycle. Every woman she comes across goes through the ordeal. Left in misery by their husbands/partners, they desperately try to put the pieces of their shattered selves together. Their kids endure fractured lives. But it is never the men who suffer, they keep moving on like a river flowing into another and renewing itself, unbroken and unburdened.
It is to this sisterhood of pain of women that Anna-Marie belongs. Like swans, these women look to pair for life but it is disappointment they are fated for. Whether it be her mother, Ines, Sanjay’s wife, Kaya, or her schoolmate, Jassie.
In drawing out the characters of Anna-Marie and her best friend, Sujata, Carvalho also puts the focus on what is inherited from parents subconsciously. In case of Sujata, her father’s illness comes a full circle to haunt her person as she grows up and try to make sense of her existence in a place she recognizes as her home but do not completely fit in. Anna-Marie on the other hand, start relating more to her mother once she steps into motherhood herself, recalling that it was never her father but mother who had always stood by her.
Carvalho’s pen proficiently renders the intricacies brought about by intersection of different cultures and their consequent uncertainties. She handles the notions of belongingness delicately and with much sensitivity. Her characters are not without flaws and yet they are memorable for their openness and ability to perceive things genuinely. As pointed by Sujata, Anna-Marie comes to accept life as a constantly evolving construct in which to grow also means to allow oneself to evolve irrespective of the contradictions confronted with. To come to a juncture where the permanence of a place or constancy of people does not matter and lives are aglow with the radiance of all the love received.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
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