Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

This was another read for Read Harder 2018, which checks two boxes: it’s a mystery by a woman of color and it’s set in India.  It’s also a period mystery, which I love.  It’s set in 1921, the first in a series about Perveen Mistry, who’s a lawyer in her father’s firm and is loosely based on a real woman of that time.

I liked everything about this book, particularly the rich descriptions of Bombay and Calcutta and the beliefs and practices of different religious/ethnic groups of that time. I knew nothing about Parsi culture and I was happy to learn more.  Even more interesting was Massey’s exploration of the relationship of the Indians and the British.

Mistry is a perfect character for a legal mystery series.  She’s determined without being foolish, although she does take a lot of risks.  I liked that she uses the law to help her investigate her case.  I also liked that instead of making her too perfect, Massey gives us a back-story for her that builds our sympathy and understanding of her character.

Massey writes this book with a fairly slow, thoughtful pace that suited me.  It’s character-driven, although it’s not always a page-turner.  There’s a lot going on, from Massey’s taking on the challenge of working as a lawyer (and working for her father) to her reuniting with an old friend and having to see their friendship in a different light.  I probably could have figured out the mystery if I’d tried to – but I enjoyed reading about Mistry and her family so much, the mystery was an added bonus.  (Some might feel that the mystery should have been more front and center, but I enjoyed the way the story was structured.)

I read several books about India this year (Girls Burn Brighter and Love, Loss, and What We Ate) and I was struck by a few similarities even though these books were quite different.  One strong similarity was the importance of food and drink, and the  description of the strong flavors of Indian cuisine.  The emphasis in all three of these books was on the careful, long preparation of Indian food, the strong scents and flavors, and the importance of food as hospitality.

Another similarity I thought was interesting was that in Girls Burn Brighter and Widows, both had a story-line where a young woman married and then she and her husband moved in with his parents.  Then the woman is expected to follow the traditions (e.g., cooking and cleaning) of her mother-in-law.  Even though one of these books was modern and one was in the 1920’s, and even though these women may have come from different ethnic, regional, and social circles, the expectation was the same.  I read this as a cultural norm — a young woman is expected to become part of her husband’s family, while in the U.S. we expect a young married couple to create a home of their own.

Author Massey has an interesting background; her parents are German and Indian, she was born in England and grew up in the United States.  Then she lived in Tokyo with her husband, which is the setting for her first mystery series.  She only recently started writing about India.

For those who like historical mysteries and exploring a different time and place, this is one I recommend.

  2 comments for “Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

  1. July 28, 2018 at 12:40 pm

    Your insight about the expectation for the wife to move in with the family is spot on. The culture is such that the younger generation are expected to look after the older ones (much like in Japanese or chinese society in fact). There is also a practical aspect – finding a home for two people would be cost prohibitive for many young couples

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