Thursday, July 4, 2013

What the Body Remembers: a book club review

So I've (very excitedly) joined a book club. Tonight was our first official meeting, and I've been waiting until after the meeting to post this review. We don't have a name for the club yet, but when we do I'll probably update the reviews so that you/I/we can track what's a regular book I just happened to read and what's a book club book. And without further ado, away we go ...

by Shauna Singh Baldwin
NOTE: This review may or may not contain spoilers. It depends how you look at it. 

I've said it before, and I'll say it again and again and again - I love novels of the South Asian diaspora. Particularly those by Canadian-South Asian writers: Ondaatje, Martel, Bisoondath. But also those scattered across the globe - Roy, Mistry, and always always everything and anything by Rushdie. So you can imagine my excitement when my new book club chose What the Body Remembers by Indo-Canadian Shauna Singh Baldwin as it's first book choice. It did not disappoint. 

What the Body Remembers stands apart in many ways because Singh Baldwin is that rarest of Indo-Candian authors. She is a woman. And the story she tells is rich with women. Sikh women. Muslim women. English women (who really don't represent their people well, but are probably accurately portrayed). The ocassional Hindu women. Veiled women who find their own source of power and agency within a culture of men who 'see them only out of the corners of their eyes.' This obedient, complicit group of women is somewhat foreign to me, but made understandable in Singh Baldwin's capable hands. 

What was also unknown to me before I read this book was the history of the partitioning of India and Pakistan when the British left India in 1947. The violence of that rending. The idiocy of its handling. The  murder and mayhem that followed in the wake of the British exodus. The sudden turning of neighbour against neighbour and brother against (half) brother. Yes, I knew there were riots and unrest after the British left, but I didn't know the full extent of that massive disruption on everyday lives. 

Though really, that's not what the majority of the book is about - or maybe it is. Most of the book follows Roop, a village girl with big dreams. Her childhood, her marriage, the rules that govern her life as a wife and mother. It was fascinating to me. I will admit a fair swath of ignorance about the cultural difference between Hindu, Sikh and Muslim Indians - even having studied two terms of World Religions at university. Singh Baldwin masterfully highlights the vast similarities between not only these religions but also their shared similarities with Christianity and Judaism.

Perhaps if more people remembered the similarities, the violence in the vacuum left by the British wouldn't have happened. Perhaps if more people focused on similarities now, the violence we do to one another wouldn't continue to happen. 

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