In the first half of March, I read three slightly satirical novels where women seek revenge: whether it’s by possessing their granddaughter, driving a taxi through a protest in pursuit of their faithless female lover, or banding together to murder their abusive husbands! Here are my thoughts:
Damani, a bisexual Sri Lankan woman, works for an app called RideShare, pocketing only a small amount of the fares the app charges her customers, while trying to care for her housebound mother who’s devastated after her father’s death. She observes the frequent protests in her American city (‘Tech Companies Demand The End of Climate Change’, ‘Jesus had two dads!’, ‘O-KKK BOOMER’) more as an obstruction that causes her to change her routes rather than as anything that might make her life better, preferring to hang out at the Doo Wop cafe with friends Steph, Toni and Shereef. Her two comforts are listening to online guru Dr Thelma Hermin Hesse and lifting weights: ‘people don’t treat me as they would someone who can lift a hundred pounds on a shitty day. They should treat me better.’ Damani is a funny, sharply indvidual and memorable narrator, and the first third of this book showcases her brilliantly.
It’s frustrating, then, that the rest of Priya Guns’s Your Driver Is Waiting is a bit of a mess. The narrative intensifies with the arrival of beautiful blonde Jolene, a white ‘ally’ who is clearly trouble from the start. Damani seems to be so blinded by lust that she can’t see this, but their relationship basically consists of having sex; it’s not clear why Damani is drawn to Jolene beyond this connection. Guns only gives them a few scenes together before Jolene does something unforgivable, as flagged in the blurb. This was a relief (because I wanted rid of Jolene) but means that her betrayal doesn’t really land with real emotional weight, because it was so obvious and we have no investment in their relationship. In short, the pacing is really off, and this feels like a chaotic early draft rather than a finished novel. Having said that, though, it’s still so much more memorable and engaging than many finished novels I’ve read – I adored the image of Damani chasing Jolene down in her taxi as Jolene clutches a We Need Love sign! I just wanted it to be even more because it had such potential.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.
I loved Zen Cho’s collection of short stories, Spirits Abroad, so much that my ghost-story-averse self was persuaded to pick up her latest novel, Black Water Sister, which starts when an American-Malaysian woman is suddenly addressed by the ghost of her grandmother. And I’m glad I did! I knew I’d adore the relationship between Jess and her Ah Ma from the very first sentence, when Ah Ma announces her presence by asking Jess ‘Does your mother know you’re a pengkid? [lesbian]’. Ah Ma is very much in the mould of the formidable vampiric aunts from one of my favourite stories in Spirits Abroad, ‘The House of Aunts’: she’s not at all bothered by Jess’s sensible objections as she leads her on a crusade to stop a developer tearing down a temple. But as Jess becomes increasingly involved in this drama, she realises that Ah Ma has a personal stake as well as a spiritual one; her relationship with the developer, Ng Chee Hin, goes way back.
Cho manages to maintain an enviably difficult balance in Black Water Sister. It’s often very funny but also genuinely scary, especially when Jess encounters one of the angry temple gods, the titular Black Water Sister (Jess thinks there might be an interesting story behind her name – ‘ “She died where the temple is now, didn’t she? In a forest… Is it because of the turtle pond?”, but her uncle soon dispels that notion: “The temple is in Air Itam mah. Air Hiram is Malay, means –” “Black water.”) However, even while she handles both humour and terror, Cho keeps her characters feeling real. The relationship between Jess and her mom, who is horrified when she finds out what is going on (‘She can’t be a medium! She graduated from Harvard!’) is especially heartwarming, even as Jess struggles with hiding her sexuality from her parents. I found this balance impressive in Cho’s short stories, but it’s especially difficult to sustain at novel-length. I will say that I wasn’t quite sure, throughout, if I was loving Black Water Sister or simply liking it a lot; every chapter was great, but I didn’t always feel drawn back to the novel, and read it quite slowly. Nevertheless, I’m a confirmed Cho fan.
I was looking forward to Parini Shroff’s debut, The Bandit Queens, after reading this fab pitch: ‘For Geeta, life as a widow is more peaceful than life as a wife… Until the other wives in her village decide they want to be widows, too’. And having expressed my disappointment when I was only partway through it, it’s fair to point out that it does pick up in the final third. Just not enough to save it for me. I thought this would be a dark satire more akin to Your Driver Is Waiting and Black Water Sister, but on the whole, it’s a much more conventional novel with some satirical bits. The strongest and funniest scenes are when the women get together and execute (or argue over) their plans, but there isn’t a lot of this until well over halfway. And the tone is so uneven; The Bandit Queens lurches from satisfying silliness to long, worthy passages where Geeta reflects on patriarchy and misogyny.
Having said all this, though, the thing that really put me off this novel is that I just found it so unbelievable. It’s meant to be set in rural India but the characters sound like they live in America half the time. It also delivers familiar story tropes: kickass women, a cute dog, a romantic sub-plot. As Srivalli Rekha writes in her brilliant Goodreads review, The Bandit Queens sells ideas about a dirty, miserable India to a white Western audience at the same time as it gets quite a few things wrong. I’m reminded of Deepa Anappara’s useful reflections on writing a book about ‘a marginalised, vulnerable community in India’ ; Anappara was born in Kerala, but recognised that she hadn’t lived the same kind of life as her characters, and so trod with care when writing her debut. Shroff does not seem to have been nearly as reflective. This wouldn’t matter so much if the book had just run with its fun premise, but it definitely wants to be something more, and that’s where it falls down.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. Now longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2023.
How do you feel about this kind of social satire?