Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Widows of Malabar Hill: A Pioneering Lawyer in 1920's India

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey was nominated in the mystery category in the earliest phase of this year's Goodreads Choice Awards. Since I had a copy from the F2F mystery group that I attend, I decided to prioritize it.  I am reviewing it on Thanksgiving because I am thankful for this book.


 I  read some of the books in Sujata Massey's  mystery series about Japanese American Rei Shimura and found them entertaining.  Yet I've always wondered if she could produce more riveting mysteries if they were more related to her own heritage.   I don't believe that authors should be forbidden from writing books that have nothing to do with their heritage. What I do think is that Own Voices work is important and should be encouraged. Sujata Massey is partly Indian.  So I rejoiced when I saw that she had written a mystery taking place in India.  Not only this, but her fictional protagonist was based on real women who were among the first to practice law in India.

I reviewed a mystery about the real woman who was the first to practice law in California here. I hoped that The Widows of Malabar Hill would be better written and more authentic. My expectations were definitely fulfilled. 

The main character of this novel, Perveen Mistry, belongs to a religious and ethnic minority in India.  She is a Parsi.  The Parsis originated in Persia, and continue to practice Zoroastrianism which is an ancient religion that influenced Judaism, the faith of my own ancestors.   I read about this influence in Rav Hisda's Daughter by Maggie Anton which I reviewed here.

Some very traditional Zoroastrians had customs that were abusive to women.  Perveen had some horrifying experiences that many readers will find very troubling. I feel that I have a duty to warn that some readers who are survivors of domestic abuse may find that this section about Perveen's past in The Widows of Malabar Hill triggers flashbacks for them.  So this isn't a book for everyone.

 Perveen had the strength to emerge from the shadow of abuse, but it's important for me to say that she couldn't have done this alone.  As I mentioned in the last review I posted to this blog here , class can be an important factor in women's lives. Without the support of her wealthy and influential lawyer father, Perveen would have had nowhere to go and couldn't have become a lawyer herself.

As a result of the British Raj, India had two types of lawyers--barristers and solicitors. Barristers argue cases in court.  Solicitors write documents and briefs.  They also give advice to clients.  Both types of lawyers are very necessary to the practice of  law. Since both the British and Indian traditionalists didn't believe that it was proper for women to have occupations that required high profile public appearances, it was initially very difficult for a woman to become a barrister.  So the first woman lawyers in India were solicitors.  Perveen became a solicitor at her father's law firm.

The case in The Widows of Malabar Hill illustrates an important role for woman solicitors.  There were devout Muslim women who needed to consult a lawyer and couldn't speak to a man.  So Perveen helps women with their legal difficulties.  The Parsi female lawyer who is the main basis for Perveen, Cornelia Sorabji also began as a solicitor for women.

Another wonderful woman character in this novel is Perveen's closest friend, Alice, an English feminist who Perveen met when she was studying law at Oxford.  I would like to see Alice continue to assist Perveen with her cases in future novels in this series.

I will be very surprised if The Widows of Malabar Hill doesn't turn out to be my favorite mystery of 2018.   I am very much looking forward to seeing more of Perveen in the future.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Temptation Rag: Music, Class, Race and Feminism in a Historical Novel

When Joelle Speranza from Smith Publicity requested that I become an early reader of Temptation Rag by Elizabeth Hutchison Barnard, she pitched it to me as dealing with a number of different themes that made it sound both complex and of particular interest to the readers of this blog.  So I accepted a paperback ARC from the publisher and this is my honest review.


Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard originally intended to write a book focused on male protagonist Mike Bernard who was a prominent ragtime musician and the grandfather of the author's husband.  She decided to expand her focus by creating a fictional life for Mike Bernard's first wife, May Convery, about whom almost nothing is known.

This fictionalized May Convery became a published poet and a women's suffrage activist.  Her struggle to achieve the independence that allowed her to pursue the life she wanted for herself is important to this novel.  Yet I have to say that the critical factor that allowed her to succeed was having been born into a wealthy family.   If that hadn't been the case, May's dreams would have died.

  I have seen reviews that call May the real protagonist of Temptation Rag.  If this were true, there would have been a great deal more about May's career.   While there is some content about her career activities that appears relatively late in the narrative,  I feel that this is still primarily a novel about Mike Bernard and ragtime music.

Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard shows us through the life of Mike Bernard how and why the history of ragtime was re-written.  This book allows readers to understand that the cultural appropriation of ragtime music was all about racism.  Racists could not enjoy this music unless they could claim it for themselves.  Mike Bernard is depicted as trying to be fair minded because of his own Jewish heritage. Mike didn't want to owe his success to racism.  The suppression of African American musicians is very much a part of Temptation Rag.

I applaud the honest characterization in this book.  Mike Barnard is portrayed as a flawed character who mistreated people thoughtlessly and falsified his history. May also became reluctant to share her true self as a result of her experience with Mike. It was difficult for these characters to form meaningful relationships. They were both very self-protective individuals.

Don't read this book if you're looking for a romance novel.  There is no HEA. This book is recommended for people who want to know what life was like for women and minorities at the turn of the 20th century in the U.S., and for those who are interested in the history of music.