Reviews for An Unrestored Woman

by Shobha Rao

Library Journal
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Presenting her dozen stories in six interlinked pairs, Rao uses the savage 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan as her narrative center, with reverberations moving outward beyond borders, cultures, countries, and generations. A 13-year-old's would-be widowhood spent in a refugee camp is the best part of her difficult life in the titular tale, while her fellow refugee experiences international adventures in "The Merchant's Mistress." The British officer in "The Imperial Police" returns decades later as a New York doorman in "Unleashed." A prostitute in "Blindfold" reveals her tragic matricidal sacrifice in "The Lost Ribbon." A massacre survivor in "Kavitha and Mustafa" has his mourning granddaughter visiting Italy with her British husband in "Curfew." In narrating Rao's debut, Neela Vaswani moves effortlessly among myriad voices, from Indian villagers to British colonizers to contemporary women living in Manhattan high-rises. VERDICT Absolutely impeccable, Woman joins other exquisite first multicultural collections including Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Violet Kuper-smith's The Frangipani Hotel, and Krys Lee's Drifting House.-Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Rao's debut story collection illuminates how the division of India and Pakistan into two countries violently disrupted the lives of the region's citizens for years. The characters in these 12 stories are connected by the effects of Partition in August 1947, as the Radcliffe Line divides the former British colony into two countries and forces a mass migration of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. With a sophisticated sense of pacing and patience, the stories build on one another by focusing on how the actions of those in power affect vulnerable women and children on both sides of the divide. The stories are paired, an interesting variation on linked stories, as there are six sets in which a character introduced in the first story also appears in the next. In "An Unrestored Woman," a 13-year-old widow, Neela, faces the continuation of her loveless marriage after her husband, erroneously reported dead, comes back to claim her from a refugee camp. In the next story, "The Merchant's Mistress," Neela's friend from the camp, Renu, becomes the servant and lover to both a diamond merchant and his wife, until an opportunity presents itself for her to escape. Other featured characters include a gay British officer facing the loss of his career after an uprising during Partition kills the Sikh officer he was attracted to; a Hindu cartographer who moves the proposed boundaries of the Radcliffe Line in the hope of personal gain; and a Hindu woman and a young Muslim boy who work to escape from a train under attack in Pakistan. The stories span more than a century, and Rao never idealizes the time of colonial rule prior to Partition or neglects the later difficulty of being an immigrant in the United States and Britain but instead focuses on how the choices the characters make reverberate for years and across generations. Rao's language is particularly good at reflecting the interior lives of her characters. Her sentences are beautiful but never lapse into sentimentality: "The water was cold, silken, and when she dipped her head under it, it passed over her scalp with the thickness and the strength of a hand"; "that's what she had thought while traveling on the train: that to journey through such emptiness was to invite it inside." Though the characters are meticulously developed within each story, the collection as a whole examines how little power a person might have over his or her own destiny when confronted with war and international disputes. Stunning and relentless. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

*Starred Review* The toll of war is often heaviest on the most vulnerable segments of the population, and the carnage after the partition of India and Pakistan following independence from Britain in 1947 was no exception. Thousands of Hindu and Muslim women were abducted and raped and lived in the shadows of the greatest peacetime migration in human history. Rao's raw and breathtaking short story collection is set against this epic canvas, yet her character studies are intimate. Here are soulful human beings struggling with ways of retaining their essential humanity against overwhelming odds even as they face the starkest of choices between life and death for themselves and their loved ones. These are women and a few men haunted by horrific memories, sometimes by repressed sexuality, and by guilt and regret. India recovered many of its lost women, but as these stories show, when it comes to the human spirit, there's a yawning chasm between recovery and restoration. Nevertheless, these women's stoic willingness to soldier on with the burden that is life speaks volumes about their hard-edged resilience. Exquisite turns of phrase and editing with a fine-edged scalpel only add to an outstanding and memorable debut.--Apte, Poornima Copyright 2016 Booklist