By Ekta R. Garg
September 26, 2018
Genre: women’s fiction
Release date: September 1, 2018
Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars
After experiencing a troubled time in her marriage, a woman travels to her cultural homeland to learn more about her family. What she discovers will change what she thought she knew about her mother and herself. Author Sejal Badani revisits the topics of identity and family in the unsuccessful novel The Storyteller’s Secret.
Jaya’s desperation for a child has begun driving a wedge in her marriage with her husband, Patrick. When she suffers her third miscarriage, it forces them to reevaluate their relationship. They decide to separate, and Jaya goes to her parents’ home to spend time with them. Maybe, she reasons, staying under their roof will revive her. At the very least, it’s a convenient runaway spot.
Her mother keeps her distance, which doesn’t surprise Jaya in the least. Throughout her childhood, she craved the affection of her mother, Lena, but never got it. Lena went through the motions, providing whatever Jaya needed except for an outward display of love. For inexplicable reasons, Lena never held Jaya close or told her she loved her. Even now, when Jaya needs the understanding hand of a mother to pull her close, Lena maintains a distance.
Through her father, Jaya learns that Lena has received a letter from India. Lena’s father—the grandfather Jaya never met—is dying. He’s asking for Lena to return so he can right a wrong. Jaya surprises everyone, including herself, when she says she’ll go in Lena’s stead. Lena tries to stop her, but Jaya knows in her heart that the trip will give her the change she needs. She boards a plane and travels to her mother’s village where she meets Ravi, the faithful servant who devoted his life to Jaya’s deceased grandmother and Lena’s mother, Amisha.
Ravi shares Amisha’s story with Jaya, a story that begins in the last years of British rule in India. Amisha, a plucky young woman, dreams of becoming a writer. Society dictates that she marry and bear children, sons preferably, and Amisha does so. She takes care of her husband’s parents and manages a household, spending the few precious minutes she gets to herself scribbling her stories.
In time, Amisha fosters a desire to learn English. Her children have begun learning the language, and Amisha wants to be able to help them with their homework. More than that, she wants to write her stories in English as well. She meets a British lieutenant in the local English school who volunteers to tutor her. The sessions change the course of Amisha’s life, as well as that of the generations that follow, forever.
Author Sejal Badani favors a sweeping love story over crucial story details. The result is a novel that many readers may fawn over; more discerning readers will question Badani’s story choices—or lack of them. For example, Jaya tells readers she’s a journalist but never specifies what type. There are vague references to working in financial journalism, then sports, and finally book reviews but no concrete information. The book opens with Jaya in the office and follows right away with the discovery of her latest miscarriage; readers never find out where her office is or what kind of publication she works for.
Also missing is the precise location of where Jaya goes in India. Again, vague references mention a village in the state of Madhya Pradesh, but Jaya doesn’t share the name. Indian states vary greatly in their languages, food, and cultural rituals. By leaving readers with a generic idea of Amisha’s hometown, Badani loses the opportunity to share specific cultural nuances. Non-South Asian readers may not care about the oversight, but South Asian readers will be sorely disappointed.
It’s disappointing, too, that Badani gets so many little things wrong. Jaya asks a minor character what grade he studies in, and the boy answers with the Western “Eighth” instead of the more typical South Asian answer of “Class Eight” or “Eighth standard.” Late in the book a married woman dies and is laid upon a funeral pyre in preparation for cremation; Badani describes the woman as dressed in all white when Indian customs typically dictate that a married woman be dressed as a bride for cremation.
The “secret” from the title is easy enough to guess and will make readers impatient for when it unfolds. Badani could have gone for a less cliché plot device. Instead, readers will spend chapters upon chapters waiting for the inevitable. After it happens, the rest of the book gets rushed to the point of annoyance. The story started off with Jaya and her relationship with her mother, Lena. It ends up being an homage to Amisha and her writing, which, incidentally, also disappears at one point without any explanation why.
Readers wanting a fluffy romance without substance will probably like this book; for the most part, however, I suggest they Bypass The Storyteller’s Secret.