Alys Conran: Dignity
Published By: W & N Books
Buy It: here
What The Blurb Says:
‘An Indian household can no more be governed peacefully without dignity and prestige, than an Indian Empire’ The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, Flora Annie Steel & Grace Gardiner
Magda is a former scientist with a bad temper and a sharp tongue, living alone in a huge house by the sea. Confined to a wheelchair, her once spotless home crumbling around her, she gets through carers at a rate of knots.
Until Susheela arrives, bursting through the doors of Magda’s house, carrying life with her: grief for her mother’s recent death; worry for her father; longing for a beautiful and troubled young man.
The two women strike up an unlikely friendship: Magda’s old-fashioned, no-nonsense attitude turns out to be an unexpected source of strength for Susheela; and Susheela’s Bengali heritage brings back memories of Magda’s childhood in colonial India and resurrects the tragic figure of her mother, Evelyn, and her struggle to fit within the suffocating structure of the Raj’s ruling class.
But as Magda digs deeper into her past, she unlocks a shocking legacy of blood that threatens to destroy the careful order she has imposed on her life – and that might just be the key to give the three women, Evelyn, Magda and Susheela, a place they can finally call home.
What I Say:
So, this is my blog, my space to be honest about what I read and why. I was sent my copy of Dignity by Virginia from W & N books, I thought it was beautiful, but I put it onto my reading pile to pick up later on this year.
On March 20th, my Mum passed away. It wasn’t unexpected, it was after a long battle with lung cancer. One of the many things my Mum and I had in common was our deep love of reading and books. She is the reason I cannot leave the house without a book in my bag, and there is not a day goes by that I don’t read something. As I finally took the plunge and started book blogging, she was there every step of the way, loving the fact her daughter was talking about books and often told me how proud she was. Mum loved seeing the books I was lucky enough to get sent, and I would always show her my bookpost.
When I showed her Dignity, she told me how beautiful she thought it was, and to read it next and let her know whether she would like it too. I started reading it on Monday 18th March, and the reason I am so specific is because two days later, Mum passed away. In the days after she had gone, I had to do all the things a grieving daughter has to do. I had to carry on, being the Mum, daughter, wife and sister that I needed to be until I could come back from seeing my Dad and sister and finally process what had happened.
When I was able to sit down, Dignity was there, right next to the pile of stuff I had brought back from my Mum and Dad’s house and I just picked it up and started to read. The thing was, then I couldn’t put it down again.
Dignity is the story of three women, Magda, Susheela and Evelyn. It is a novel about love, of trying to find that elusive home that we all strive to belong to, and of finding a family.
Magda is a cantankerous old woman, confined to her decaying house and reliant on the care and support from the women who are paid to look after her. Susheela is one of the young women who takes on this task, in spite of Magda’s constant attempts to belittle her and break her spirit. Magda was born and raised in India until she was sent away by Evelyn, her Mother, and Benedict her Father, to a cold and desolate boarding school.
We meet Evelyn as she is being sent to India to marry Benedict. She is perfectly packaged and preened, naive about many things, and reliant on the books she has taken with her on the voyage to try and make sense of the world she is about to enter. Although slightly wary, you get the sense that Evelyn is going to relish this next stage of her life, and she sees her new life as a time of adventure and promise. Indeed when she arrives, she is overwhelmed and in awe of the sights, smells and sounds of the world around her.
Unfortunately, this is short lived, as she realises that being a wife in India comes with certain conditions, ways of behaving, and treating the servants who work for you as if they are there purely to cater to your every whim. Little by little, Evelyn realises the world she was ready to embrace is slowly closing in around her. Her husband Benedict only sees her as a trophy to show off, to prove his virility and to establish his position in polite Indian society. Evelyn’s hopes and dreams are ignored and quashed, as she realises her worth is purely measured in her ability to produce an heir and to conduct herself in a manner deemed appropriate by those around her.
Even when she gives birth to Magda, her longed for child, she is not permitted to be the mother she truly wants to be, as almost immediately an Indian woman called Aashi is hired to be Magda’s wet nurse. Evelyn is slowly removed from Magda’s life and is told that when Magda reaches an appropriate age, she will be sent ‘home’ to the United Kingdom, while Evelyn and Benedict stay in India. Unfortunately, a life changing event happens, and Magda is sent home alone, forever apart from her parents.
Magda is a different kind of prisoner, trapped with her memories and dreams of her former life in the decaying family home at Victoria Road. Initially she seems resentful of the ever changing world around her and mired in outdated attitudes and beliefs especially towards Susheela. We know that Magda is fiercely intelligent and strives for independence, but now she has no one, and is seeing out her days in a cluttered and neglected home, a stoic reminder of her past glories. Magda reluctantly accepts Susheela’s help, but finds herself drawn to this bright young woman who has many issues of her own. Together, they form a unique and tender bond which changes both of their lives in ways they never would have dreamed possible.
Susheela is trying to balance so many things, she is trying to deal with her father who is grieving for his wife, while she grieves for her Mum and they are in danger of losing their home. Her boyfriend Ewan loves her but is fighting his own demons after serving in the Army, and on top of all this, Susheela has to deal with Magda. She may be the youngest of the women in the story, but her fierce determination to find her place in the world is just as engaging.
What elevates Dignity for me is not only the beautiful storytelling, and the sense of depth you get with each character, but that these women are bound together. This is not a novel of hopelessness, it is a novel of hope. Evelyn, Magda and Susheela are all looking for a sense of belonging, of being loved and being able to love too. They are all searching for a place to call home.
The writing is so engaging and smart, and you really feel that you are there with each character. The description of life in India, was a revelation for me- it brought home to me how much things have changed, and how much they haven’t. The novel draws you in from the first page, and as you fall deeper in, the changing narrative and evocative descriptions only serve to keep you willing the women to fulfill their dreams.
In Dignity, Alys Conran has written a novel that will captivate you from the first page, and will not let go of you until you turn the last. It is about love, loss, motherhood and home, and of a time past and a world where everyone is searching for their place in it.
Without a doubt, Dignity will be one of my books of 2019. I absolutely loved it, and I know that my Mum who understood the importance of home and belonging and would have truly loved it too.