From birth, the Suddeq children – Sully, Jakie, Mae and Lana – are pushed into set roles determined by their gender and by social expectations. The boys will study, go abroad for education and return as successful doctors. The girls will be dutiful daughters, marry well and help to keep the family in the highest social standing.
But their mother’s determination to force them into these ideals of ‘good children’ forces a wedge between her and her children. All four grow up to rebel and push the boundaries in their own way – Sully marries outside of his religion and Jakie falls in love with a white Irishman, while the girls leave their husbands and raise their children with Western values.
Despite scattering to all corners of the globe to escape their mother’s grasp over their lives, their childhood in the Punjab profoundly affects all four of the children. As they build their lives in new surroundings and carve their own path away from family and cultural expectations, they all struggle to some extent with feelings of enduring guilt or resentment. Many years later, they are drawn back to their childhood home and forced to come to terms with their upbringing and the choices they’ve made since.
Sullly in particular takes a lot longer than his siblings to come to terms with his childhood, and it’s only through the support and insight of his brother and sisters that both he and us as readers can finally come to a sort of resolution.
Their mother is portrayed almost exclusively badly throughout the book. The imagery that surrounds her is intense. She’s often described as a spider, a witch, reaching out to control those around her with claws or talons despite outwardly appearing beautiful and youthful. She comes across as manipulative and jealous – and when it comes to her children, she is repeatedly disappointed as they continue to ‘disgrace, dishonour and disobey’ the family.
I would have loved to hear more from the girls. At the beginning of the novel, Sully and Jakie spend a lot of time worrying that they have abandoned their sisters to the pressures and expectations placed on them as women in the Punjab, and it’s acknowledged that they aren’t afforded the same educational and career opportunities as if they had been born men.
However, we only have a few chapters from Mae and Lana’s perspective, so our opinions of Mae and Lana are for the most part formed by Sully and Jakie’s views. They aren’t really given the page space to develop a voice of their own, and I would have loved to have a bit more of an insight into what was going through their minds. This is especially true for Lana. She’s described by her brothers as eternally sweet, patient and kind, and it’s clear that she’s also clever and forthright enough to know exactly what she wants and how to get it. However, it felt like she needed a bit of an edge to really make her stand out as a character.
The same goes for their mother, who in contrast is portrayed more like a caricature than a real person. It’s only later on in the book that we get a hint of a real personality and the fears and motivations that might be driving her actions.
Overall though, this was a really interesting, thought-provoking family saga that’s well worth a read. It gives a truly fascinating insight into cultural expectations and how these can shift between different generations. The author also tackles some pretty major issues – from domestic violence to racism and homophobia – in a way that’s sensitive, insightful and that blends seamlessly into the wider story.