In “The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters,” Balli Kaur Jaswal tells the story of three Sikh sisters whose lives have drifted apart, but who honor their mother’s final wish by taking a pilgrimage to India to visit places in her home state of Punjab that she didn’t get to see during her life and taking her ashes to spread as she desired.
Their mum didn’t have an easy life. She and her husband moved to England to have a better life for the children they planned to have. But her husband’s college education didn’t transfer to England, so he worked in a factory. And when he died early, from an unattended injury, their mum worked long hours at cleaning jobs to support her three girls.
Rajni, the first born daughter, seems rigid and unforgiving. She has just learned that her 18-year-old son is involved with a woman twice his age, and that the woman is pregnant with their child. Rajni finds it unthinkable that her son’s girlfriend is almost the same age as his mother. She is also hurting from unresolved issues with her mother. Issues that they never talked about and which go back to Rajni’s teenage years eventually are shared with the readers and with her sisters.
Jazmeen, the middle daughter, has not succeeded in her acting career. Although she had a brief stint working as a TV host with viral videos, her own viral video, in which an endangered fish died by her hands (or more accurately, feet) has killed any possible other job opportunities. Jazmeen and her mother did not get along, and although Jazmeen and her younger sister, Shirina, were close as children, they grew apart as they got older.
Shirina is the sister whose actions are mysterious for a good part of the book. She is the baby sister, and the family was shocked when as a young adult she went online to basically arrange a marriage for herself. She chose a young man from a good family who lived in Melbourne, Australia. They met once and then married in London. She now lives a miserable life in Australia, far from her family, with no one in whom she can confide. Her mother-in-law is a terrible person, but in the Indian culture, a mother-in-law runs the house and must be obeyed. On this trip to India with her sisters, she is being forced to follow the wishes of her mother-in-law and do something unthinkable or face not being welcomed back into her husband’s family in Australia.
Shirina, like the other two, keeps her personal life to herself. None of the sisters want to confide in the others. But over the course of the story, the reader learns more and more about each sister and about the family they grew up in. The reader will also learn about the Indian culture and the women’s role in the culture. It’s not a positive lesson.
The novel is beautifully written. Jaswal writes lovely dialogue, and the omniscient point of view gives readers insight into what all three sisters are thinking and what has happened in their past to get them to where they are physically, in India, and emotionally, in this certain place and time on their journey to make their lives happier and emotionally successful. Each sister has something she is striving to fix. Each sister will come to realize that by relying on each other, they will understand themselves better. Together, they begin to understand their mother better, and by sharing their pasts, they understand what they must do to create a better future.
No matter your culture, this book is a fabulous read. Those from India or who have Indian heritage will love the cultural references, and those who know nothing about India and its culture will love being immersed in the crowded streets, the bright signs, the markets, the sweltering summer. Not so wonderful are the lurid stares from strange men, the starving dogs running in the streets, and the terrible traffic. But the Shergill sisters become friends, and you will be sad to turn the last page on their adventure.
Sit down with a cup of chai and travel with the Shergill sisters. You’ll love the journey.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by William Morrow, the publisher, for review purposes.