Dignity is a novel that takes the reader from colonial India to present day Wales as Conran explores the lives of three women in her second novel. I picked it up at this year’s Hay Festival, having loved hearing Conran read from and discuss her novel in one of the talks.
Magda is a former scientist with a bad temper and a sharp tongue, now living alone in a huge house by the sea. Confined to a wheelchair, her once spotless home crumbling around her, she gets through carers at a rate of knots.
Until Susheela arrives, bursting through the doors of Magda’s house, carrying life with her: grief for her mother’s recent death; worry for her father; longing for a beautiful and troubled young man.
The two women strike up an unlikely friendship: Magda’s old-fashioned, no-nonsense attitude turns out to be an unexpected source of strength for Susheela; and Susheela’s Bengali heritage brings back memories of Magda’s childhood in colonial India and resurrects the tragic figure of her mother, Evelyn, and her struggle to fit within the suffocating structure of the Raj’s ruling class.
But as Magda digs deeper into her past, she unlocks a shocking legacy of blood that threatens to destroy the careful order she has imposed on her life – and that might just be the key to give the three women, Evelyn, Magda and Susheela, a place they can finally call home.
Magda is a former chemist who is now retired and living alone in a house that seems to be in the same fragile state as Magda herself. With her body failing her, Magda has become increasingly reliant upon her carers, and she has become understandably prickly at the undignified situations that she increasingly needs help with:
It’s going from one toilet visit to the next and being fed by rote and being patronised until you almost forget you’re a human being.
Despite her abruptness and occasionally appalling manner – it seems to be a game as to how much she can upset those looking after her – I liked Magda a great deal, and she becomes extremely supportive, in her own way, of Susheela, the latest in a long line of carers, and one who reminds her of her time in colonial India.
Susheela is working part time as a carer while also studying at university, and it’s through her that we get to see some of the difficulties faced by those working in the care system, which isn’t for the faint-hearted. Having recently lost her mother, Susheela is already struggling, and it seems that life has a few more twists in store for her. Through Susheela, a young woman living in Wales, the reader also gets to see the racial slurs that are becoming more, rather than less, common. It’s feels like a regression, and to me reflects the way in which a minority of people seem to have taken Brexit as an excuse to exhibit some of their less desirable behaviours. I also have to mention Susheela’s father who is a minor character, but I loved his attitude towards his daughter and while he isn’t perfect, there are certainly worse fathers out there. He’s also a big Iron Maiden fan, which I found delightful.
The third woman at the heart of this story is Evelyn, Magda’s mother, who moved to India in the 1930s to marry a man she barely knew. I thought that the evocation of India at the time was brilliantly done, and Conran highlights the indignity with which anyone who wasn’t a British male were treated. Those Indians working for the British are treated horrifically, and while their wives had a better time of things and at least some creature comforts, it soon becomes clear that it’s not a pleasant society to be a part of. Evelyn’s story is particularly heart-breaking, as we see this smart and optimistic young woman become quite a different character over time as the she has little choice but to submit to society’s, and her husband’s, expectations.
Dignity is a fantastic novel, and one that I’m not sure I would have come across without the event at the Hay Festival. It’s beautifully written, and I loved the seemingly unlikely friendship that grew between Magda and Susheela. As you might expect, the theme of dignity is one that runs throughout the novel, and it made me consider the way in dignity may take on new meaning at different stages of our lives, or in different generations. Highly recommended.
Dignity was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson earlier this year, and is available in hardback and digital formats.