Book Review: Dignity by Alys Conran

Book - Dignity by Alys ConranI was mesmerised by Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon, and her second novel, Dignity, is no less stunning. It follows the stories of three women – Magda, Evelyn, and Susheela – travelling across time and continents, from North Wales to India, as their lives begin to unravel in all sorts of ways, anchored always to thoughts of Home. This is a novel which does not shy away from portraying the conflict and hypocrisy of Britain’s colonial past.  

It begins with Magda as an old lady, stubborn and frustrated, hiding in her creaking old house, in a forgotten seaside town in North Wales, unwilling to let anyone inside, apart from the carers who slip in and out. The past seems to eat away at her, and it is only Susheela, a young Indian woman, working as a carer to pay her way through university, who seems to connect with the real Magda, behind the façade.

Susheela is still grieving for her mother, and tentative in her relationship with Ewan, a fellow student who is deeply affected by his memories of army life. Susheela and Magda form an unlikely bond, and it is Magda’s stubborn kindness which helps Susheela to battle through the difficulties that lie ahead.

Meanwhile, we travel back in time to meet Evelyn, Magda’s mother, who sets off to India, full of anticipation for married life, only to find that it is nothing like what she imagined. She is soon forced to fit in, alongside the other wives, ignoring the servants, following the strict rules of society, fulfilling the submissive role of wife and, eventually, mother.

As Evelyn’s story begins to take shape, we see how she changes under the controlling hands of Benedict, her husband, becoming more and more like him, forbidden to show love to her own child, forbidden to do anything of which the neighbours might not approve. Eventually, we hear the story told from Magda’s perspective, as a young child forbidden to show love towards her mother, scampering about with her friend Raja, afraid of being sent Home – to a country she does not know.

The novel becomes more and more gripping as it goes on, with some unexpected twists and turns along the way. We see the un-easy and frightening reality of racism, both then and now, as well as the impact that trauma can have on a person long after the event. Here is an extract, in the voice of Evelyn, describing the changes she observes within herself:

“… as I am not allowed to feed, to change, to mother my baby, I become toughened like old meat into a kind of sergeant major, and, when I look at myself in the glass, I become, day by day, more like the hard-faced Englishwomen who have surrounded me since I arrived, my brow creased by resentment…”

The story was inspired partly by Conran’s own family history – her father was born in Kharagpur, known then as ‘British Bengal’, and his parents sent him to North Wales, where he was brought up by his grandparents. Although the plot is fictional, it is based on the real stories of men and women who went out to India, and each chapter is headed with extracts from primary sources, such as The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, which reinforce the reality behind the fiction. I found these quotes irritating to begin with, but they certainly illustrate the constraints of society at that time.

Conran has based the entire plot around the uneasy concept of Home – What does it mean to be at home in a country that is only pretending to be British? Or to be threatened with Home – something foreign and unfamiliar? How does it feel to be asked where you are from, to be told Go home! when you, and your parents, were born just up the road?

Despite being slightly frustrated with the first few pages, I soon became engrossed in the story, and found myself pausing to make the book last as long as possible. This is a novel which gets under your skin, unflinching in its portrayal of Britain’s colonial past, and the unsettling conflict of its present. It presents us with a changing and un-steady world, full of vulnerable characters who must learn to confront their past, and embrace the future.

Buy a copy of Dignity by Alys Conran here.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

If you enjoyed reading this review why not subscribe to my blog and get regular book reviews sent to your inbox?