Reviewed by Emma Crowley
She allows herself to kiss her perfect child just once. She wraps the baby in her last gift: a hand-knitted cardigan, embroidered with a water lily pattern. ‘You’re better off without me,’ she whispers and although every step breaks her heart, she walks away.
1910, India. Young and curious Alice, with her spun-gold hair, grows up in her family’s sprawling compound with parents as remote as England, the cold country she has never seen. It is Raju, son of a servant, with whom she shares her secrets. Together, their love grows like roses – but leaves deep thorns. Because when they get too close, Alice’s father drags them apart, sending Raju far away and banishing Alice to England…
1944. Intelligent and kind Janaki is raised in an orphanage in India. The nuns love to tell the story: Janaki’s arrival stopped the independence riots outside the gates, as the men on both sides gazed at the starry-eyed little girl left in a beautiful hand-knitted cardigan. Janaki longs for her real mother, the woman who was forced to abandon her, wrapped in a precious gift…
Now old enough to be a grandmother and living alone in India, Alice watches children play under the tamarind trees, haunted by the terrible mistake she made fifty years ago. It’s just an ordinary afternoon, until a young girl with familiar eyes appears with a photograph and Alice must make a choice. Will she spend the rest of her life consumed by dreams of the past, or can she admit her mistakes and choose love and light at last?
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Orphan's Gift to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
The Orphan's Gift by Renita D'Silva is set in India and follows two women from their early childhoods right into their adult lives. The book is split into many parts, some of which are longer than others, and it is told from both women's perspectives. The story takes quite some time to settle into a consistent rhythm and it took me awhile to become accustomed to the chopping and changing between characters and time periods even though these where mentioned at the beginning of each chapter. I just found it jumped around far too much and this meant I couldn't settle into the story that was very slowly unfolding. For in my mind there was a very slow build up to what the crux of the story actually was. Persistence is needed but you will be well rewarded.
In the beginning over the course of a few chapters we are informed of a visit to a woman which will tilt her world on its axis. We were told of this several times but using different words to convey the same meaning. I understood the first time that major changes were afoot and didn't feel the need for the repetition and at several points in the story I just felt there was too much repetition instead of the story being driven on. To that end I did think the story as a whole could have been shorter as parts seemed unnecessarily long. These were the main issues I had with this book but pushing them aside there is a very good story of love, loss, tragedy, sacrifice and devotion waiting to be uncovered. Once I could look beyond the issues I found arising I could see the author had woven a story where the affects of your family's actions and viewpoints and how our childhoods are shaped really does have a deep and long lasting impact for the remainder of our lives.
The descriptions of India, the food, the heat, the nature, spices, the daily life are all wonderfully and creatively described throughout the book from beginning to end. They add a heightened sense of awareness to the overall themes being explored and help bring the country to life. The political situation at the time is also a background to the main plot but it does come to play a more important role the further the book progresses and it has devastating implications for the characters we are reading about. The Indian people are seeking their independence from Britain and figures who have gone on to make their mark on history do feature here, those being Ghandi and Mother Teresa. Race and accepted rules and regulations play a vital role in this story and not following these will led to torment,tragedy, loss, heartache and loneliness.
We gain a very deep insight into both women's differing childhoods and only as I reached the end point did I fully comprehend the necessity of this as events, situations, feelings and the results of actions have a significant forbearing on the last quarter of the book. Alice was born in India to a British father and mother. Her father has a very important job in the British government and is more often than not absent from the house. Alice's mother is cold and aloof preferring to spend the long hot days locked away in her room. So Alice only has her wet nurse, who is her ayah, and her ayahs son son Raju for company. But that is enough to sustain her and she explores the compound with Raju and a deep friendship is formed. Alice despite her young age feels complete and at one with Raju. He makes her whole and she knows he understands her and can interpret her every gesture, movement and emotion. They spend glorious days together becoming as one with nature.
Alice throughout the book was not a character I warmed to. She seemed so needy and when she didn't receive that love and warmth from her parents she sought it somewhere else. This being in the form of Raju which at the time went against all social conventions as being a servant and an Indian and of a low class would not have suited Alice's family at all. I understood she was crying out for affection from her parents but she placed herself in a situation of her own making and to be honest she was so selfish. She could never see the bigger picture that her actions had consequences for all involved and that in her quest to satisfy her own longings to feel complete and whole she was destroying and risking other people's lives and entire families and communities. She did nothing but moan about how unhappy she was but she should have understood that happiness can be found in other forms and that her actions would only lead to the separation of herself and Raju.
One had to wonder did Raju feel the same way as Alice or was he more street wise and he enjoyed her company for what it was in and around the compound but he knew in reality that this could never be a sure fire thing and that perhaps he was much more wiser to the bigger political and personal situation at play. When her father learns of the friendship they are forced apart and for the remainder of the story Alice will test you with her actions because I felt she was satisfying herself and putting others in danger unnecessarily. She couldn't see beyond finding her own happiness but she really should have taken the wool from her eyes and interpreted the bigger picture. Towards the end things began to make a lot more sense with Alice but I still think lots of things could have been averted and things could have turned out so differently for many of the characters I had been reading about.
The other woman we read about is Janaki who had been left at an orphanage when she was just a raw infant. Again she is a character that is not without her flaws but they are present because of what happened to her in her childhood and there are more events throughout her life that make her so wary of everything and she refuses to allow love into her life. Or if it is there in some form she protects it all costs leading to a stifling life where no contentment or fulfilment can be achieved. Janaki goes against the norm in that she comes from nothing and uses what has happened to her to follow her dreams to become a doctor. She made a promise to a friend that she would see it through and my god she showed such grit and determination to do so. The orphanage wasn't all that bad and she forms strong bonds with some of the nuns who run it but when she is dealt one cruel blow after another she feels there is no way forward.
Janaki was very very hard on herself and I think the fact that she was abandoned and left at the door of the orphanage played a huge part in this. She feels unloved, unwanted and neglected and she wants and needs answers. But they are not forthcoming. She shies away from emotion in fear of it not being reciprocated but she needs to learn to let herself go and embrace the good things that are there waiting for. There are many comparisons to be made between Janaki and Alice and I was interested to see how the two strands of the story may or may not eventually merge.
The Orphan's Gift although not my favourite book from Renita D'Silva was still a good read despite some of the issues I have outlined. There are valuable, interesting and worthwhile themes being explored and enough within the story to keep you guessing right until the very end.