The Secret Children

Written by Alison McQueen
Review by Lynn Guest

1925. When James MacDonald, a lonely Scots tea planter in Assam, took a beautiful Indian girl as a concubine, he did not foresee two daughters, accidents of his lust, born from this union. Serafina and Mary are the secret children, “problems” loved by their father but who must be kept hidden from his compatriots lest their existence damage his career. At the same time, they are despised by the Indians as casteless half-breeds. The novel, based on a true story, follows the sisters from birth to old age, from Assam to Bombay, from the supremacy of the Raj through the Pacific War, Independence and Partition to a moving conclusion in an English churchyard.

The child of an Indian mother and a British father, McQueen obviously has a deep understanding of the confusions and difficulties faced by Serafina and Mary. The casual cruelties of racism, from both the British and the Indians, are sometimes balanced by unexpected tolerance and kindness. All the characters, nasty or decent, are carefully drawn and three-dimensional and set convincingly in their period. The sisters are completely believable as they struggle in their different ways of finding their place in an unsympathetic world. The Indian background is colourful. Landscape and weather are vividly described whether in the ravishing countryside or squalid cities. Particularly fascinating are the details of rural Indian life.

This is a wonderful novel. A page-turner that is gripping, sensitive and thought-provoking. Highly recommended.