The Company Daughters

Written by Samantha Rajaram
Review by Kristen McDermott

This radiant debut novel is perfect for fans of The Miniaturist and Girl with a Pearl Earring. Two young women of 1620s Amsterdam, maidservant Jana and her employer’s pampered daughter, Sontje, find themselves compelled to seek their fortune – really, to sell themselves to the highest bidder – as “Company Daughters,” women transported by the powerful East India Company to marry the bachelor settlers of their prosperous colony in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia). During an epic journey, they discover their own value and desires while trying to navigate a world that sees them as mere commodities to be traded and displayed.

Rajaram has the remarkable ability to immerse you completely in the sensory world of her settings. Jana is a perceptive observer, alive to the beauties of nature, and the reader shares her point of view effortlessly, but it’s more than that. With carefully chosen details, Rajaram transports you to the canals of Amsterdam, the wild beauty of the Cape of Good Hope, and the fragrant heat of Batavia, opening Jana’s eyes along the way to new cultures and to the power of female community. Fully half the novel takes place aboard the trading ship Leyden, but never feels claustrophobic, thanks to Jana’s fascinated curiosity about everything she observes. The women she travels with are fully realized personalities, as complex and flawed but also as sympathetic as Jana. The community they build is both powerful and fragile, but the emotional rollercoaster of their experiences never feels artificial or melodramatic.

This is a novel to be savored for its gorgeous prose and unforgettable relationships. It’s also an important depiction of the West’s long history of human trafficking and a reminder that its cruelties are woven so intimately into our culture that it’s easy to mistake Jana’s struggle to survive as a triumph of individuality. She would be the last to agree.