Now You See Us by Balli Jaur Jaswal
As an avid bibliophile, I am always on the search for a new reading adventure. In recent years, I have tried to be a bit more organized about the way I find the adventures that I add to my endless reading list. But that does not mean that I do not leave a little wiggle room for unexpected discoveries. That is the way I would describe how Balli Kaur Jaswal’s latest book came into my reading life.
I was out running errands and realized that my next stop would have me waiting several minutes and found myself in what I like to call the book reader’s crisis. Caught out without a book. I usually have at least a paperback with me, and I had absent-mindedly left home without a book. So, I did the next best thing. I drove over to my local library, did a quick browse of the shelves, and left with a handful of incredible books.
Ms. Jaswal’s book attracted me because I had recently read and thoroughly enjoyed her book Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, which was also one of most enjoyable reads for 2023 . So, seeing her latest book on the shelf was like reconnecting with an old friend.
The story centers around three Filipina women who are living and working as domestic workers in Singapore and assigned by an agency to different families living in the affluent island nation.
Donita is feisty and ambitious. It is her first time working as a domestic worker and while she is determined to do her best and not lose her authentic self in the process, she has the unfortunate luck to be hired by a super-religious and persnickety employer. Corazon, on the other hand, has better luck. A more seasoned domestic who comes out of retirement for mysterious personal reasons, her employer dotes on her to the point to the point where it becomes uncomfortable. This is also coupled with the fact that she is carrying the dark and heavy secret of the history of trauma that she has endured, making it difficult to open herself to kindness. Angel works with a home that is in mourning for the recently departed matriarch and her duties as a domestic worker are paired with caregiving responsibilities for the father of the family. She is nursing a broken heart from a love affair that turned sour and is also gnawed by a deep feeling of insecurity based on the knowledge that she could be so much more than she is but lacks the courage to pursue her dreams. The women are galvanized into action when a fellow domestic worker is accused of murdering her employer. By the time, this happens in the story, I was already so emotionally invested in the characters, and this was primarily because of the author’s brilliant and fluid writing, with phrases like, ‘the word “murder” strikes the air like a match.’
As the story unravels in an evenly paced narrative, we get to know more about the women but the other character that the writer intuitively and cleverly brings to the reader’s attention is the island of Singapore. The extremely vivid scenic descriptions bring the island nation to life in this book from the rich culinary delights to the landscapes and home interiors, which make the reading a delightful and immersive experience.
The themes of abuse, migration and loss are tackled provocatively and tenderly in a way that does not evoke discomfort but creates a greater awareness of some of the dark things that human beings can do to each. The author also cleverly introduces a few twists that the reader might not see coming and by the time we get to know what dark secret Cora is carrying, it does not matter anymore, because we have already fallen in love with her character in the pages of the book. That’s the genius of a good storyteller, to craft a narrative that is so brilliantly told through incredible characters who become so familiar that you miss their company by the time you turn the final page.
This is a book I would definitely read again without hesitation.
Some memorable lines:
Her round face beams like the sun.
Doubt singes the edges of her memories.
Information travels faster than justice.