A novel with alternating narration, this is the story of Nalini and her children, Maya and Satchin, reluctant Indian immigrants to England. Starting with Maya's recall of their life in India before her handsome and charming father moved them to London, the novel progresses through the death of Maya's beloved Achan. Or at least her understanding of his death as created by Nalini in order to spare her children from the devastating knowledge that he has abandoned them, leaving them to fend for themselves without money in this foreign land. Because when Nalini takes over the narration, she admits that she has created out of whole cloth the story of his death, thinking this white lie is less terrible than the truth. And this is just the first of the shades of grey that teem through the pages of this novel.
Adrift and penniless in London, the family is taken in by the older sister of the young man/boy who delivered spices to Nalini in better times. And so they move to the East End of London, amongst so many other immigrants, while Nalini tries to eke out an existence for the three of them. And in time she not only finds her calling, in cooking spicy pickles to cure the problems people might not even know they possess, but she also falls in love again. But the white lie she has told her children still lurks in the background, lying in wait for the right moment to reveal itself.
There is much about families, families by blood and families created, and the sacrifices we each make for others, including the un- and under-appreciated sacrifices, in this novel. But the overarching theme, is, of course, that of honesty and the need for truth. Nalini's secrets, Maggie's secrets, and so many other secrets coursing through the narrative ultimately cause pain. But they also highlight the fact that life isn't lived in black and white and that intention is just as important in the telling of stories as the truth. Most importantly of all, regardless of the actual truth, it is most important to know the truth of yourself and who you are, as Maya finally comes to know in the end.
The novel is much less cheerful than the cover would indicate and far less about the differences between East and West but once you adjust your expectations accordingly, there is still much enjoyment to be found between these pages, especially for those who enjoy reading about the immigrant experience. There is some difficulty in separating the voices of Maya and Nalini, especially in the beginning of the novel but that becomes easier as the novel progresses. And it is well handled when the truth of Nalini's fib comes out, with each of the characters acting in character. Overall, this had a few problems structurally but I did enjoy it and would recommend it to those interested in Indian diaspora writing.