The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

The-Widows-of-Malabar-Hill-coverI picked up this book because of the 2018 Read Harder Challenge, but also because I decided it’s high time I start reading mysteries. I’ve read one or two over the years, but other than that, nothing.

I don’t have a good excuse, either. I’m not a big fan of gore, violence, or creepy stories, but there are a whole lot of mysteries that aren’t any of those things. I do love a fast-moving, plot-driven novel with a satisfying ending. This book wasn’t exactly fast-moving, but it sure was a delight to read.

The Widows of Malabar Hill takes place in 1920s Bombay. Perveen Mistry is a brand-new solicitor at her father’s law firm: Bombay’s first female solicitor, in fact. Despite a tragic past (which is slowly reveled throughout the book) and significant restrictions on women’s rights, Perveen, with the support of her family, has graduated from Oxford and is ready to practice law.

One of her first cases is that of executing the will of a wealthy Muslim businessman who has left three widows behind. The widows observe strict purdah–seclusion from men–and as Perveen gets to know them and becomes entangled in their lives, she begins to see that all is not as it seems. Murder and messy family politics combine in a

I loved the setting and I loved Perveen as a character. She was so richly drawn–smart, confident and determined to advocate for herself in a world that degrades and ignores women. She had her own demons, her own doubts and fears, but she never loss faith in her abilities. It was so refreshing to see such an unapologetically feminist character in a historical novel like this. It was a joy to watch Perveen prevail. I also appreciated how deeply supported she was by her family, especially her father. As an Indian woman practicing the law, she faced many obstacles, but her family was steadfastly on her side.

The setting, too, was so beautifully drawn. The tense relations between the British and the Indian people, the diverse religions and cultures all co-existing in Bombay, the nuances of the particular Muslim household of the three widows–it was all so richly detailed. The world Massey built felt complicated and varied, and never like she was simply skimming the surface or relying on empty stereotypes.

The book alternates between two timelines: the present (1921), in which Perveen is unraveling the mystery involving the three widows, and the past (1916-1917), where her personal backstory unfolds. I found the past sections much more engaging than the present sections. I felt the¬†mystery itself dragged at times and was overall much less compelling than Perveen’s own story.

Though I have few mysteries to compare it with, this one definitely felt like a slow-burn. If picked up about two thirds of the way through, but even so, the stakes never felt life-or-death. Perveen’s history, on the other hand, had me at the edge of my seat.

Most of all, I loved how seamlessly Massey woven women’s rights and social change into the story itself. It never felt overly wrought or contrived. This was a book about women living their lives, butting up against sexist laws and institutions, and what they chose to do when they hit those restrictions. Sometimes they were broken by them and sometimes they fought them, but it always felt authentic to the characters. I was cheering in the background for most of the book, even though some of what Perveen and her peers faced was truly awful.

Overall, the fantastic characters and the richness of the historical setting made this a wonderful read. I loved Perveen enough that I’ll happily read anything else Massey chooses to write about her.

 

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