Tamara is going to kill her mother, but she isn’t the villain. Tamara just has to finish what began at her birth and put an end to the damage encoded in her blood. Quitting her job in Communications, Tamara dresses carefully and hires a car, making the trip from London to her hometown in Kent, to visit her mother for the last time. Accompanied by a chorus of ancestors, Tamara is harried by voices from the past and the future that reveal the struggles, joys and secrets of these women’s lives that continue to echo through and impact her own.’ The Sound Mirror spans three familial generations from British Occupied India to Southern England, through intimately rendered characters, Heidi James has crafted a haunting and moving examination of class, war, violence, family and shame from the rich details of ordinary lives.
The Sound Mirror is a wonderful novel exploring the lives of three very different women. Told in the third person, Tamara’s chapters in particular give a rather unusual perspective, taking the form of something like a Greek chorus made up of Tamara’s female ancestors who comment upon Tamara’s life, and yet aren’t directly involved in the events of the novel. I only noticed this with Tamara – Claire and Ada’s narratives seem much more typical of a third person perspective – but it works well and gives the reader something a little different to other novels.
James successfully highlights the time in which each of these women is alive without ever referring to a year – the reader is able to understand the chronology without being told. Claire and Ada’s tales run in parallel and give a sense of “how the other half live” as we are able to compare and contrast their very different lives. Claire is of Italian Catholic descent and comes from a large family where she is expected to help with her younger siblings as well as the family business. She’s intelligent, but her dreams of continuing in education are thwarted by her father who expects her to earn her keep rather than getting ideas above her station. It seems inevitable that she too will go on to have a large family, and she falls into the role which seems to be the only option available to her – one of motherhood and taking care of hearth and home while her husband is the breadwinner of the family.
Ada’s life is quite different. The daughter of an English man and an Indian woman, she and her family leave India for Britain as the British occupation of India comes to an end. The vibrant life that she is used to is replaced by one of dreary weather and the poor British attitude to outsiders, whatever their heritage. Enrolling in secretarial school, she quickly proves herself capable of so much more and yet is punished for it, the world of men not yet willing or able to cope with the idea of a woman who is at least as capable as themselves. Eventually she marries, and we see her settle into the role of not so dutiful housewife as the boredom and inattention of her husband – undoubtedly playing the field himself – sees her explore a series of casual affairs.
Tamara’s narrative brings us to the present day and begins with a particularly intriguing opening line “She is going to kill her mother today”. The reasons behind this take some time to be understood, and it’s a great hook which is cleverly done as the reader comes to understand the circumstances behind this bold statement. Tamara’s life is explored in the most detail, covering the complex relationship she has with her mother. Hers was a difficult childhood, her mother having more time for a seemingly endless string of boyfriends – not all of whom were kind to the young Tamara – than she does for her daughter. It seems inevitable that Tamara will fall into an abusive relationship, her husband a bully who exhibits controlling and demoralising behaviour. It’s perhaps a sign of the changing times that Tamara is able to leave that relationship – for Ada, there’s a sense that she must grin and bear it no matter what.
There are common themes throughout, but the one that stood out to me is that of thwarted ambition and the idea of women seeking to better themselves and being firmly put in their place by the people around them and / or the expectations of the time. This is most apparent for Claire and Ada who both desire more than will be permitted to them and, while they lead different lifestyles and fit into different social classes, there’s a sense that they are battling against the same problems – the expectations placed on women crossing class boundaries. Tamara does have more choice and is able to choose her own path and follow her dreams, indicating the changing attitudes even if there are those who still seek to put us in our place if we let them.
The Sound Mirror is a wonderful novel exploring the complexity of everyday lives. With themes exploring class, family, and shame, it’s rich in detail and charts the ways in which things have changed, and other ways in which things aren’t so different, for good or ill. Published by Bluemoose Books, it’s one that I highly recommend.