The perils of surrogate motherhood are explored in the comedian’s ambitious third novel which struggles for consistency
Surrogacy is a subject that seems rarely to be out of the headlines. Last month, a British high court judge warned that surrogacy is creating a “ticking legal time bomb” after a landmark ruling against a surrogate mother who denied a gay couple access to their child. Given that an estimated 2,000 surrogate babies are born each year to British parents – most from overseas mothers – and that this figure is exponentially on the rise, it’s a bomb that risks creating a substantial explosion.
All this makes fertile territory for Meera Syal’s third novel, The House of Hidden Mothers, a cautionary tale about international surrogacy. Syal’s protagonist is 44-year-old Shyama, a British-Indian woman to whom life hasn’t always been kind: abandoned by her husband when her daughter – now 19 – was small, and with ageing parents living in the house opposite, she’s at last found happiness with a younger man, Toby. Except that she and Toby have been unable to conceive a much longed-for child. The novel opens in an expensive Harley Street consulting room, as Shyama is given the news that she can neither conceive nor carry a baby.
Meanwhile, some 4,000 miles away in rural India, a young married woman, Mala, learns from her newly affluent neighbour about the riches to be acquired through surrogacy, and thus Shyama’s and Mala’s lives begin their inexorable journey towards one another.
There is much to admire in the opening chapters of the novel; Syal deals with Shyama’s bitter cynicism about the ageing process – and her envy of others’ youth – with customary wit: “In an age where you could redefine ageing and cougar your way around town with a wrinkle-free smile, inside you were not as old as you felt, but as old as you actually were.”
There’s also a good deal of pathos to be found in the descriptions of generational tension: just as Shyama desires to live a different life from that of her parents, so her daughter, Tara, is constantly frustrated by any comparison with her mother’s experience: “It was like some twisted game of Generational Top Trumps where any experience or complaint she might have was dwarfed and dismissed just because her mother had got there before her and apparently suffered so much more.”
The novel is incredibly ambitious in the breadth of its themes, but this brings with it certain challenges. Tackling everything from motherhood and infertility to bulimia, feminism and rape, by way of cultural dislocation, bureaucratic corruption, familial betrayal, infidelity, commercialism and globalisation, the story struggles at times to fit such issues seamlessly into the text. Instead, we often find characters opining through dialogue that doesn’t sound entirely authentic, or musing in prose where Syal’s voice is omnipresent. The result is that characters behave inconsistently: some of Tara’s early musings on feminism belong to a significantly more mature voice, and many of Shyama’s observations would be better suited to a standup.
The novel’s real redemption – and the beating heart of this story – comes not from Shyama or Mala, or the outcome of the surrogacy, but in the form of Sita and Prem, Shyama’s ageing parents. It is Prem’s quiet dignity and Sita’s repressed – but effective – rage that provoke most sympathy and help navigate the novel though its multiple plot lines.
The House of Hidden Mothers tackles a broad canvas of sensitive and timely topics. But ultimately, it struggles to weave its narrative and thematic strands with sufficient dexterity into the rich tapestry the story yearns to be.