Balli Kaur Jaswal, Erotic stories for Punjabi widows (#BookReview)

Book coverBroadly speaking, Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal’s third novel, Erotic stories for Punjabi widows, reminds me of Anita Heiss’ choclit books like Paris dreaming (my review). By this I mean it presents as an escapist romcom genre novel but within it is some serious intent. In this case it relates to the oppression of women, particularly widows, and, more specifically, the problem of honour killings, in Britain’s Punjabi Sikh community.

The story concerns the “still searching for her calling” Nikki, who, twenty-two-and-a-half years old with half a law degree behind her, obtains a job teaching writing to immigrant Punjabi widows in Southall, the heart of London’s Punjabi community. Except, what she finds is that these widows do not want to learn to write:

I’ve survived all this time without reading and writing; what do I need it for now?’

What they want is to tell stories – erotic ones – to each other. What they want, really, is companionship and a safe place to be themselves, away from the oppressive eyes of a traditional community dominated by the self-appointed “morality police”, the Brothers.

And here is where some darkness comes in, because within this community, several young women have died. Officially, these deaths are recorded as accidental or suicide, but it gradually becomes apparent that all may not be as it seems and that murder and honour-killing may be involved. Widow Sheena chillingly says later in the book that “in this community I’m suspicious of accidents.” The novel, therefore, is a romcom-cum-crime mystery.

Paralleling this story of the widows and their writing class is that of Nikki and her nearly 25-year-old sister, Mindi. Born in England to Punjabi immigrant parents, they represent the other side of the cultural coin – to a degree, anyhow, because Mindi, a nurse and (still) unmarried, is considering “embracing our culture” and going the traditional arranged marriage route. This shocks the freer wheeling, English-to-a-core-she-thinks, Nikki, who tells Mindi:

This is what young women do in Britain! We move out. We become independent. This is our culture.

Even so, our modern Nikki does sometimes feel “split in two parts. British, Indian.” Fortunately, Nikki meets a man the more usual way – by serendipity – and love starts to bloom. But, this is a rom-com so, as you’d expect, the course of true love doesn’t run smooth and soon enough Nikki finds herself wondering why this man is behaving a little strangely.

As with Anita Heiss’s choclit books, what lifts Erotic stories for Punjabi women out of the straight chick lit genre, is its interrogation of social issues. Besides the above-mentioned mystery concerning a young woman’s death, two other issues are reflected in the lives of these characters, one being the challenges faced by young first generation women, and how they navigate the two cultures they find themselves straddling. By having Nikki and Mindi handle this quite differently, Jaswal reveals the complexity of what this generation faces. Then we add in Nikki’s new love, Jason. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that his experience of being a first generation Sikh man from the USA, and the expectations placed on him, adds commentary to Nikki and Mindi’s thoughts about life, love and marriage.

The other main issue is the oppression of Punjabi Sikh women, particularly but not only widows, within their own culture and in the culture of their adopted home. Our widows are invisible in their own community. Without their husbands they are seen as and feel “irrelevant”. However, these Punjabi women overall haven’t made any inroads into the English community either, feeling the English “haven’t made their country or their customs friendly” to them. “Britain”, Nikki realises, “equalled a better life and they would have clung to this knowledge even as this life confounded and remained foreign.”

There is, then, a lot going on here, but Jaswal, whose first novel, Inheritance, earned her a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Award, knows how to construct and move along a plot. She also knows how to entertain. The erotic stories are a bit of a hoot. With our widows finding creative synonyms for certain body parts, you may never look at a cucumber the same way again. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, which my reading group enjoyed, and there are some lovely touches of irony. For example, the earnest Kulwinder, interviewing Nikki for the writing class, starts to sense that Nikki’s idea and her own may not be aligned:

It dawned on Kulwinder that she had advertised for something she did not understand.

The joke, though, is on Nikki too, because for all her “passion to help the women”, little did she expect just how that “passion” might play out!

My favourite books are those which touch the heart and challenge the mind. Erotic stories for Punjabi widows, for all its serious intent, primarily meets the former. It ticks all the boxes: it’s fun to read, has likeable characters, and its message is valid and relevant. For me, though, it’s a little too obvious and predictable, and the resolution is too neat to give the book the sort of gritty, punchy power I love. However, I enjoyed the read and recommend it to anyone wanting an enjoyable romp of a read with a little meat on its bones.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

Balli Kaur Jaswal
Erotic stories for Punjabi widows
London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017
ISBN: 9780008209902 (eBook)

Anita Heiss, Paris dreaming (Review)

Anita Heiss Paris Dreaming

Paris Dreaming (used by permission of The Random House Group Ltd)

Late last year I wrote a post about the inaugural Canberra Readers’ Festival. One of the speakers was indigenous Australian author, academic and activist, Anita Heiss. I wrote then that I bought one of her books. It was her fourth (I think) chick lit novel, Paris dreaming. This might surprise regular readers here, as chick lit is not really my sort of thing, however …

There are reasons why I was happy to read this book. First was that my reading group chose it as part of our focus on books featuring Canberra for our city’s centenary year. Yes, I know, it’s called Paris dreaming, but the heroine starts in Canberra and Canberra is mentioned (not always positively I must say) throughout the book. The other reason is the more significant one, though, and that is Heiss’s reason for writing the book. I said in the first paragraph that she is an activist and her chick lit books, surprising though it may sound, are part of her activism. In fact, I think pretty much everything Heiss does has an activist element. In her address at the Canberra Readers’ Festival she described herself, an educated indigenous Australian, as in the top 1% of the bottom 2.5% of Australia. She feels, she said, a responsibility to put her people on the “Australian identity radar”.

Does this book do it, and if so how? Well, one of her points is that 30% or more of indigenous Australians are urban and this book, as its genre suggests, is about young urban indigenous women. Anita Heiss manages I think (though I’m not the target demographic so can’t be sure) to present characters that both young indigenous and non-indigenous women can relate to. Our heroine Libby and her friends are upwardly mobile young professionals. They care about their work; they love fashion, drink and food (this is chick lit remember!); and they wonder how to marry (ha!) their career goals and romance.

Indigenous design vase, on hall table, Governm...

Indigenous art vase, Government House, Canberra

So what’s the plot (besides the obvious chick lit formula which this book certainly follows)? At the start of the novel  30-year-old Libby, manager of the education program at the National Aboriginal Gallery, is on a man-fast. She’s been bitten one too many times and has sworn off men, much to the dismay of her tiddas (her “sisters”). She is, though, keen to develop her career and wants a new challenge – all part of the chick lit formula – and so pitches a proposal to her boss that she mount an exhibition of indigenous Australian art at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. Of course, her boss approves and off she goes to Paris where, following the formula, she falls for hunky, sexy Mr Wrong while Mr Right watches on, spurned (and spurned and spurned). But, of course, I don’t need to tell you how it comes out in the end do I? This is not subversive chick lit because that would not serve Heiss’s purpose …

Did I enjoy it? Yes, but not so much as a piece of literature because my reading interests lie elsewhere, but as a work written by a savvy writer with a political purpose. This purpose is not simply to show that young, urban, professional indigenous Australians exist but, as she also said in her address, to create the sort of world she’d like to live in, a world where indigenous Australians are an accepted and respected part of Australian society, not problems and not invisible. She is therefore unashamed about promoting indigenous Australian creators. She names many of them – artists, writers, filmmakers – and discusses some of their work, educating her readers as she goes. Most of the people, works and places she mentions are real but there’s an aspirational element too. The National Aboriginal Gallery does not exist but she presents it as a significant player in the Canberra cultural institution scene. Good for her!

I’ll probably not read another of Heiss’s choc lit (as she, tongue in cheek, calls it) books, but I’m glad to have read this one – and I’ll certainly look out for works by her in other genres (including her memoir Am I black enough for you?). Heiss is a woman to watch.

Anita Heiss
Paris dreaming
Sydney: Bantam, 2011
ISBN: 9781741668933

Catherine McNamara, The divorced lady’s companion to living in Italy (Review)

McNamara A divorced lady's guide to living in Italy

Bookcover courtesy Indigo Dreams Publishing

What would you say to a cross between chick lit, those mature-women-finding-themselves travel memoirs (like, say, Mary Moody’s Au revoir or Elizabeth Gilbert‘s Eat, Pray, Love), and Alice in Wonderland? Such a fusion is how I’d describe Catherine McNamara’s first novel, The divorced lady’s companion to living in Italy. Intrigued? Then read on …

The plot is simple. Marilyn Wade, a forty-something mother of two teenagers, is “dumped” in her kitchen by Peter, her husband of 17 years. After a period of disbelief and confusion, she decides to go to Milan where rumour has it that another neighbourhood “dumped” wife, Jean, is living a happy and glamorous life after finding true love at Machu Pichu. Jean, also, she believes, runs an English language school where she hopes she’ll find work. Enter Fiona, Federico, Brett, Arnaud, eventually Jean … and a whole new world, to put it mildly, for our Marilyn.

So, why do I describe it the way I did in the first paragraph? Well, to start with, it has elements of chick lit. Just look at the cover with its title in pink. But it’s not a pure chick lit cover is it? There’s no designer handbag or impossibly high heels, no tiny waisted 20-something young thing. Instead, with the exception of the title, there’s a rather classy black and white cover comprising half of a woman’s face that reminds us of more mature women, like, say, Sophia Loren. In fact, there are many references to Sophia Loren in the book. The cover, then, nicely sets up the content as having some thematic correspondence with chick lit but with a difference.

Because in fact, Marilyn’s search is not really chick-lit-like. She’s a mature woman who sees life a little more complexly, and this brings me to the second style of book I mentioned, the mature-woman-finding-herself-travel-memoir. Marilyn is not idealistic about true love and the desire to have it all that is common to chick lit. She’s been around the block, has been betrayed and hurt, and is more than a little jaded – but she has enough hope and energy to think she can still make something meaningful of her life and she leaves the comforts of home to do it. She takes risks – in all meanings of the word, if you catch my meaning – on her way to forging a new life for herself. (Fortunately, like chick lit heroines, she seems to have enough money to support her adventures into her self).

How then, you must be wondering, does Alice in Wonderland fit into all this? It’s not simply the adventures, because these would be covered by the travel-memoir genre I’ve described, but more to do with the rather fantastical world in which they occur. The world Marilyn finds herself in is characterised by somewhat bizarre people (or, at least, people who push our credulity) and by excessive coincidence. For some readers these may get in the way of their ability to suspend disbelief, since McNamara seems to take Chekhov’s gun theory seriously and pushes it to the limit. The first couple of coincidences had my antenna out, but then I got into the flow and actively looked for them. They made me laugh and feel part of Catherine’s fantasy (because, really, books in these genres are fantasy aren’t they? Or is it me who is jaded!?)

As for the writing itself, McNamara has clearly been honing her craft for some time. She has published a children’s book and several short stories. She has a lovely, original turn of phrase. And while at the beginning I felt she sometimes overused similes, as the novel wore on the writing tightened and became controlled and expressive without feeling overwritten. I liked, for example, the opening sentence:

An old friend of mine named Jean fell through a tear in her marriage and landed on her feet.

(Now, doesn’t that sound like Alice in Wonderland?). And I liked this description of Marilyn’s arrival in Milan:

Then, without waiting for my agreement, the woman who’d sold my husband the prize-winning beetle-eating show turned on her high heels and began to tug me into Milan.

Milan, the fashion capital of Italy where appearance is god, turns out to be quite a tricky place for mature-aged housewife Marilyn, but she’s ready for change and change is what she gets. She learns to smarten herself, without succumbing to the Italian fear of aging:

But this is awful [says her young lover Federico]. This woman she not know who she is anymore. She is like carnevale mask, very scary. But this is Italy now, everyone afraid to get old …

All up, The divorced lady’s companion to living in Italy is a fun and often funny read about friendship, love, risk-taking and changing direction.

Catherine McNamara describes this novel as commercial fiction. Her next book, which will be published by Indigo Dreams in 2013, is a short story collection titled Pelt and other stories and represents her foray into literary fiction. McNamara is serious about her career and is clear about her goals and her audience. From what I’ve read so far, I think we’ll be seeing more of her.

PS Elizabeth Lhuede of the Australian Women Writers Challenge will be proud of me. I have stepped out of my literary fiction comfort zone into genre, which will help me achieve my Franklin-fantastic Dabbler level of the challenge. Thanks Catherine for the incentive, and woo hoo!

Catherine McNamara
The divorced lady’s companion to living in Italy
Stoney Stanton: Indigo Dreams, 2012
ISBN: 9781907401732

Review copy courtesy Indigo Dreams Publishing via the author who has been, for several months now, a regular commenter on this blog.

Toni Jordan, Fall girl

Jordan Fall Girl

Fall girl cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

It’s just as well I’m not one of those readers who likes to draw conclusions about writers’ lives from their writing, because if I were I’d be seriously concerned about Toni Jordan. You see, her latest novel, Fall girl, is about a con-artist, a very experienced one in fact. And Jordan writes so convincingly you’d almost think … ah, but we’re not going there, are we!

Now, Toni Jordan writes chick lit, but it’s chick lit with a difference. The heroine of her first novel, Addition (which I reviewed earlier in this blog’s history) has obsessive compulsive disorder and at the start of the novel is almost a recluse. She is not, in other words, your typical chick lit heroine.  And so it also is with Fall girl‘s heroine, Della. She too is a little off-the chick-lit-beaten track. She is:

  • not in normal employment;
  • not really upwardly mobile (as her family lives in a dilapidated mansion, and tends to spend up big “wins” rather than using the money to improve their lifestyle);
  • not focused on fashion and appearance (though she does prefer to dress well); and
  • not looking for a husband (though of course this being chick lit, romance does rear its head).

The hero, Daniel Metcalf, however, is somewhat more typical: “he looks like a model from an adventure store catalogue”. He is tanned, strong, big and muscled, and there is a little nod, I think, to Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy in him. But there is also a bit of a mystery about him that our heroine needs to resolve if she is to succeed in this, her biggest “sting” by far.

What can I say about it? It’s a fun read. The plotting and characterisation are good. It’s told first person, in a mostly light tone, but there is light and dark, as not everything runs smoothly (of course). There are some lovely comic scenes – particularly during the scientific expedition on which Della (aka Dr Ella Canfield) takes her mark, Daniel, to demonstrate how professionally his grant money will be spent. Without giving anything away, the resolution is in keeping with chick lit without being completely, neatly tied up.

Is there anything else to it? The writing is good – in a traditional, straightforward way – and the structure is generally chronological, with the odd flashback to fill in Della’s family background. It drips with irony, but in a light-hearted, rather tongue-in-cheek way. Jordan knows that we know the conventions of the genres – of both chick lit and the con – and plays them to effect. We read, and we smile, not grimace. But, there is something else here too, something besides the chick lit and the con story, and that is a coming-of-age story. Not the traditional adolescent story, but we discover as the novel wears on that twenty-something Della has not really achieved self-determination. Everything she does is in accord with her training and her father’s “rules”. Towards the end of the book, her stepmother Ruby talks to her about her upbringing in the family and her inculcation into its “business”, and says:

What you choose to believe is up to you, Della. You don’t have to listen to anybody. You have to make up your own mind.

But, of course, being a Jordan novel, it’s not typical “coming-of-age” either and what Della decides is part of the fun of the ending.

This is a light, entertaining read – and yet it’s not lacking in things for readers to think about. In fact, it’s just the right sort of read for the Christmas holidays. Lisa at ANZLitLovers would probably agree – but go check her review for yourself.

Toni Jordan
Fall girl
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2010
ISBN: 9781921656651

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)

Toni Jordan, Addition

Addition Pb cover, Courtesy Text Publishing

Addition Pb cover, Courtesy Text Publishing


Looks like, feels like, is it? Chick lit, that is. Toni Jordan’s first novel Addition has all the hallmarks of chick lit. The cover design with its line drawing of a female form invokes chick lit – albeit chick lit with an edge as the heels aren’t quite high enough and the colours not quite girly enough. The plot though is pure rom com and pretty much standard chick-lit: girl meets boy, girl loses (kicks out) boy, girl gets boy back. So why has this book garnered more attention and positive critical response than its sisters?

Well, Jordan is no Jane Austen (who is sometimes called the mother of chick lit) but she has produced something a little fresh. Her heroine, Grace, is not quite the standard chick lit heroine. She has had a breakdown, she is not in employment, she is not upwardly mobile and she is not focused on fashion and appearance (though it has to be said that she’s not oblivious to these latter either). Instead, she’s an ex-primary school teacher (not the most fashionable career, anyhow, in the world of chick lit) and she suffers from an obsessive compulsive disorder that results in her need to count, anything and everything, in order to maintain control over her life. And her hero, Seamus, a happy, ordinary dresser in an ordinary go-nowhere job, is “average”. Fortunately, though, with the help of her smart young niece, Grace realises at the end “that average can actually be unique”.

Grace’s voice is chick-lit-sassy and the book is genuinely funny a lot of the time, but there are also times when it is forced and tips over into being smart-alecky, such as her reactions to the psychiatrist and therapist. Her other hero is Nikola Tesla, the not-properly recognised famous inventor of many things electrical, who also had an obsessive compulsive disorder relating to numbers. It is the presence of Nikola in Grace’s life which sustains her at the beginning, helps ground her at the end and gives the book its real hook – that is, that being different is to be cherished and encouraged, as long as it doesn’t drag you down.

Jordan has a nice flair for language too. I liked the change in tone and pace when Grace’s panic rises, and a similar change in Jill’s speech to Grace when they are in hospital discussing their mother’s future. She’s lightly ironic in places and includes the odd bit of wordplay. It will be interesting to see where she goes next.

In addition (excusez-moi!) to its trying sometimes to be a bit too funny and its somewhat preachy ending (“Listen … Life is ..”), the book’s main problem is it’s too close adherence to the formula. You know she is going to lose him and you know she is going to get him back. It’s just a matter of how. Some level this same criticism at that favourite author of mine, Jane Austen, but her books encompass way more than plot to say some fundamental things about the human condition. I can read her again and again and see something new, or take away another perspective. I can’t see anything in Addition, as delightful as it is, that would afford me that pleasure on multiple readings.

So, read it, enjoy it – as I did – but if you want something a little more sustaining, try Jane.