Book review: The Secret Children by Alison McQueen

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James MacDonald is a son of the British Empire, a rich tea planter in India with a distinguished family history ... the lives of his two beautiful daughters should be mapped out for comfort and wealth.

There’s just one giant stumbling block for Serafina and Mary – their mother is James’s Indian concubine and that means the girls were born illegitimately from two different worlds but belong to neither.

In the claustrophobic colonial climate of the 1920s, their very existence is a social and cultural disaster for both parents, and one which will affect the fate and fortunes of both girls.

In a novel spanning over 80 years of history, Alison McQueen carves out the gripping and heartbreaking story of two young women who must endure prejudice and risk everything if they are to find a place for themselves in a cruel world.

Their journey to belong will take them through cataclysmic events like the Second World War and the turmoil of Indian independence and into a new and uncertain dawn...

In Assam in 1925, James MacDonald has taken India to his heart and made it his own, his life inextricably entwined with the jewel in his king’s crown.

The remote tea plantation suits his introverted temperament and he feels perfectly in tune with the harmonious flow of the seasons.

He has no interest in the wide-eyed English girls sent out to India in search of a suitable husband and instead decides to satisfy his occasional loneliness with a ‘clean and pure’ Indian girl who should feel it an honour to be chosen as his concubine.

Enter Chinthimani, fresh from a family ‘cursed’ with four daughters and a father only too happy to hand over what he regards as ‘a dishonourable burden.’

James falls for her instantly but the locals, unsure of where she comes from, believe she might not be a human at all but the daughter of one of the gods, sent to do their bidding.

Others whisper that Chinthimani will be his downfall...

It’s a heady time for the teenager who revels in her new status, resplendent and beautiful in her happiness and good fortune despite having to live in secret quarters away from the main house.

What wasn’t in the script was Chinthimani falling pregnant – twice – and producing two daughters who, however beguiling they are, threaten to bring shame on James’s family because they have mixed the heritage of his bloodline.

The two girls grow up strong and well fed, but always hidden away. Their strange names, paler skin and hair that waves mark them out in the nearby village where they are forbidden to play with local children.

Serafina, the older sister, is proud, handsome and demanding while Mary is trusting, compliant and good-natured. Both will be tested when events mean that they must move away from all they have ever known and make choices that will last a lifetime.

McQueen was inspired by her own family history and this gives added impetus, realism and resonance to a tale which is rich in emotion, cultural complexity and India’s vibrant landscape.

Her characters are beautifully imagined ... the relationship between the two sisters is lovingly developed as their contrasting lives intertwine through war, partition, hardship and happiness.

She portrays the cultural chasm between Indian native and British colonialist with care and compassion to create a sweeping and moving saga that will live long in the memory.

(Orion, hardback, £9.99)