The ‘Widows of Malabar Hill’ by Sujata Massey is a social commentary disguised as a whodunit “locked room” mystery set in exotic Bombay, India.
The story cleverly weaves two timelines; a ‘present-day’ Bombay in 1921 where Perveen Mistry is working hard to become an integral part of her father’s law firm. The second timeline takes us back to 1916 where we learn what trials Perveen endured before deciding to pursue the path that turned her into Bombay’s first female attorney.
If you don’t like stories that jump between two time periods, this may not be a good choice for you. I personally don’t mind it, especially when it’s well done.
The whodunit part of the plot is set in an affluent, though decaying, home where three very different widows live in purdah. Their common links are their recently deceased husband, their house, their way of life, and the family finances that impact their collective future.
The widow’s section of the house is very private. The widows do not leave their home unescorted, and they do not speak to any man who is not part of their immediate household. They are very much locked in, if not physically, then certainly through cultural norms to which they are accustomed.
A man is very certainly murdered inside of this decaying house on the women’s side of the structure. Perveen, by virtue of being both a woman and in the unique position to represent the widows as their attorney, has access to the widow’s side of the house and discovers the body.
It’s clear right away that she is, perhaps, the only person that can help relay the information from within the home to the investigators outside and seek out the truth within. Investigators may not even fingerprint the women without causing scandal and outrage.
As a relatively young Parsi woman in 1921, it does feel that Perveen is a rare choice for the role of investigator. But, she’s also perfect in every way; she’s become a feminist who’s passionate about the rights of women and children. She shows us behind the veil so we understand how such restricted lives are led, and the motivations within that private space.
Ultimately this unlikely sleuth shows her bravery and intense desire to live and fight.
“She had been meant to die, yet she’d cut her way out of that fate and back to the world she loved.”
She’s both an advocate and warrior, and certainly worth following along in this excellent read.
The city of Bombay too plays a featuring role, with Massey richly describing food, clothing, custom, and infrastructure in such a way that you can almost smell the exotic perfumes and baking sweets. I recommend this novel highly.
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