This is one of those books with a blurb that immediately captured my interest. It’s the story of three women, all of them fascinating characters.
Magda is, I think, the one around which the other two revolve. She’s a clever lady, but she’s old now and her body is letting her down. She lives in a huge house with parts closed off and relies on carers to come in and help her, even with going to the toilet. One of her carers is Susheela and whereas many of the carers seem to Magda to be annoying and insipid, Susheela reminds Magda of her early life in India.
The third woman is Evelyn, Magda’s mother. Having travelled to join her husband in India with hope and love in her heart, things didn’t turn out at all how she expected. Evelyn’s story is ultimately a sad one, of broken dreams, toeing the line, of being stifled by her husband and her situation.
The title really means something. Dignity is something Magda is fast losing and it makes her prickly and difficult for the carers to like. But Susheela sees beyond that and finds herself warming to Magda. It’s an unlikely friendship but that’s what it becomes. Susheela is finding that things are going backwards in her home town and racial slurs are aplenty, and in India Evelyn seems to have no chance of dignity anymore.
I could feel the tears forming quite early on, in Susheela’s first chapter in fact, when we go with her to Henry’s house, a man she is caring for. She’s only allowed half an hour with each person she cares for – what can you do in half an hour? I know this is an accurate portrayal of the care system and it just highlights even more that lack of dignity that so often comes with old age.
I found myself thoroughly drawn into the lives of the three protagonists. Their stories are told in pretty much alternating chapters and this works so well to explain how each of them ended up where they are. Whilst the chapters set in India with Evelyn and her husband were not perhaps my favourite of the three, I really found Colonial India during the ‘rule’ of the British Raj beautifully drawn, if not our finest hour. I had a real sense of the way Evelyn was living, shut up in a house with servants feeling like they are watching her every move. I hated the way the servants were treated in their own country and feel ashamed that the British thought they were so superior.
Dignity is a skilfully written story in every way, looking at parallels between the women’s lives. It’s a powerful and perceptive look at racial issues in the 20th and 21st centuries and I was thoroughly captivated by it. It’s not the easiest read in terms of content and at times it feels quite brutal, but in terms of readability Dignity has it in spades
Nicola Smith, Short Book and Scribes, 5/5
Dignity by Alys Conran
W&N 9781474609432 hbk Apr 2019