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The Selector of Souls by Shauna Singh…

The Selector of Souls

by Shauna Singh Baldwin

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This novel is set in India in the mid-1990s. There are two major characters whose stories are told in alternating sections. Damini, a Sikh-Hindu, is a widowed grandmother who, after she loses her job because of the death of her long-time employer, moves in with her daughter and her family. Damini begins working at a health clinic. Anu, a Christian-Hindu, is a battered wife who leaves her husband after sending her daughter to Canada; she joins a convent and works at the health clinic which also employs Damini. The two work together to improve the lot of women.

This book is primarily about the (mis)treatment of girls and women in India, a supposedly democratic country but one dominated by a patriarchal society which views females as expendable. After assisting with the birth of her granddaughter, Damini wonders, “What terrible deeds must this soul have done in a past life, to now be punished by taking form as a girl. What will she face but suffering that leads to more suffering” (236). In the Acknowledgements at the end of the book, the author mentions, “Demographers estimate that 45 million baby girls were missing in India in the nineties, and 42.4 million from 2001-2008 as a result of prenatal selection. Worldwide, 160 million girls are estimated missing since the 1970s. Those missing girls inspired this novel” (545). The novel touches not only on prenatal gender selection (abortion of female fetuses), but also on infanticide of baby girls, arranged marriage, rape, and domestic violence.

The book is full of historical, political, and religious references which often obscure the narrative. There is no doubt that the author is writing from experience and has done extensive research, but sometimes the novel reads more like non-fiction because it is so crammed with data. The author’s voice overshadows the characters’ stories.

Another problem is that the book has much too many coincidences. Damini and Anu are very different in terms of background, age, and social status, yet their lives repeatedly intersect. In a country with a population of over a billion, they meet not only in New Delhi but also in a remote mountain town in northern India. People who figure in the life of one character eventually feature in the life of the other. For example, Amu’s husband’s first love is the daughter-in-law of Damini’s employer. Amu’s husband also eventually employs Damini’s son. The list goes on and on; the number of coincidences stretches credibility.

In terms of characterization, the men receive short shrift. Most are flat characters and all are misogynists to some extent. The one liberal-minded man mentioned is Anu’s father and he’s dead. Even Anu’s liberated aunt, who publically fights for women’s rights, is married to a man who, despite physical evidence, wants Anu to return to her abusive husband.

A further weakness is that the author uses vocabulary that would be very familiar to an Indian but not to a Western reader. Terms for clothing, caste, and religious ceremonies are often not explained, so the reader is left unable to visualize what is being described. A glossary would definitely have been helpful.

This book is worth reading because it certainly opens one’s eyes to a major issue in India (and other parts of the world as well), but it is unfortunate that the narrative is not allowed to speak for itself. ( )
  Schatje | Dec 31, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307362922, Hardcover)

The Selector of Souls begins with a scene that is terrifying, harrowing and yet strangely tender: we're in the mid ranges of the Himalayas as a young woman gives birth to her third child with the help of her mother, Damini. The birth brings no joy, just a horrible accounting, and the act that follows--the huge sacrifice made by Damini out of love of her daughter--haunts the novel.

In Shauna Singh Baldwin's enthralling novel, two fascinating, strong-willed women must deal with the relentless logic forced upon them by survival: Damini, a Hindu midwife, and Anu, who flees an abusive marriage for the sanctuary of the Catholic church. When Sister Anu comes to Damini's home village to open a clinic, their paths cross, and each are certain they are doing what's best for women. What do health, justice, education and equality mean for women when India is marching toward prosperity, growth and becoming a nuclear power? If the baby girls and women around them are to survive, Damini and Anu must find creative ways to break with tradition and help this community change from within.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:20 -0400)

Damini and Anu are two women who are searching for creative ways to break with tradition and help their communities in modern day India.

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