Lakshmi Persaud’s fifth novel, Daughters of Empire,is a novel about making a home away from home. It centres around the lives of Amira and her family, Trinidadian Hindus, as they migrate from Trinidad to London. Amira and her daughters flourish as they impact upon and embrace the new culture around them. By contrast, Amira’s older sister Ishani still lives in Trinidad, and is the voice in the distance providing reminders of ‘home’ and giving the reader the opportunity to glimpse life in Trinidad.
The novel begins with the arrival of Amira, her husband, and three daughters at 14 Apple Grove, Mill Hill, London in the 1970s. From the outset the reader can feel Amira’s apprehension towards the new land and the new home which “She dreaded going in”, yet the reader can admire her courage for making the journey and her determination to do her “utmost to ensure our living here is a success”. The burden falls upon her, once a teacher in her own country, to turn to the domestic sphere and make the lives of her family run as happily and successfully as possible. The reader becomes amazed at Amira’s cast iron will as she conquers challenge after challenge. She has to ask and search and ask again for simple things such as where to buy vegetables or what schools to send her children to. Yet with each challenge Amira faces, she flexes to accommodate a culture that is completely foreign to her.
The novel is separated into 57 relatively short chapters, each with its own title, and stretches across 30 years. While this expanse of several decades allows a deeper overview of the characters’ development, often the resolution of storylines is left unspoken. This creates a quiet uncertainty, emphasising the limitations of knowledge possessed by the reader and urging that same reader forward to seek discovery in the later chapters. As Amira’s daughters reach womanhood, each takes her turn as narrator and shares her own unique interactions with Britain. Anjali, the eldest, is most influenced by the family’s old traditions, yet handles personal trauma with a strength of will that surpasses that even of her mother. Satisha, the middle child, is more competitive, with a high-powered, highly-paid finance job in London, and her story shows how someone can lose herself in a culture that is not her own. Vidya, the youngest, comes across as the most assimilated into British ways, and her choice of a white partner brings new challenges to an inherently Hindu family.
Persaud’s novel contains enchanting and enlightening passages about the immigrant experience in Britain, as well as plunging the reader into both Hindu and Trinidadian culture. However, what most pervades the whole novel, in both the British and Trinidadian settings, are the sensual, aromatic descriptions of food. Food is a big part of cultural life for Amira’s family and it is used to create a sense of home and community wherever they are in the world. Persaud’s vivid descriptions evoke all the senses; descriptions such as, “When the dhal-puris which were silky soft…were broken they released into the room the warmth of roasted ground cumin” make the mouth water and leave the reader wishing to dine at Amira’s house themselves.
Daughters of Empire is a novel about women of strength who battle with change and overcome it in their own individual ways. It is hard to do the intricacies and depth of this novel justice in so few words, so all I can do is highly recommend you read this inspiring novel for yourself.