erotic stories for punjabi widowsThank you to the publisher HarperCollins UK for making this book available via NetGalley and choosing me as one of its reviewers. Isn’t that a charming cover, by the way, guaranteed to draw the reader in.

An East-West culture clash novel where the West is represented by Nikki, law school dropout and smoker, who lives alone and works in a pub, having escaped from her traditional mum and her sister who’s now claiming she wants an arranged marriage. I love how Nikki is shown speaking to other Punjabi people in broken English reflecting her lack of skills in what other people consider should be her native language – just one of the funny but also perceptive details in the novel.

Nikki goes on a trip to Southall to post her sister’s details on a marriage board in the Gurdwara. While she’s there, she notices an advert for someone to teach a writing class for Punjabi widows. Soon she’s taken on by the rather formidable Kulwinder, who is responsible for women’s issues at the temple. Southall is a part of London I’ve never been to and I loved the details seen from a slight distance, as Nikki revisits places they used to go a lot in the past (the author is based in Singapore and I think this slight distance helps to round out the characters and places in the book, as she’s obviously used a lot of observation rather than tired stereotypes). She soon discovers the women – most of whom want to get into telling their stories – giggling in corners and sharing a wealth of erotic stories, either remembering the lives they had with their husbands – or whomever – or indulging in wish-fulfilling fantasies if their husbands weren’t up to scratch.

Soon, the stories start spreading, first photocopied, then emailed, just as stories are, and half the Punjabi population of not just London are reading them – and having their lives and marriages influenced by them. This must be kept from Kulwinder, though, who has her won mysterious grief and fears, and certainly isn’t keen on people like Nikki: “British-born Indian girls who hollered publicly about women’s rights were such a self-indulgent lot” and are asking for trouble.

And trouble does indeed come, in the form of a battle with Kulwinder, a search for a new location for the class, and the self-proclaimed defenders of morals in the community, a group of young men who have taken to threatening schoolgirls and the widows. The mystery deepens as the women grow to trust Nikki and talk to this outsider a bit more about the issues they face in the community.

There are multiple layers and it’s not a book with simple answers or relationships. I love how the women find empowerment in roundabout ways and pull together when they need to: it’s very clear that they are all different, with different experiences of life and marriage. I loved the descriptions of Southall, where you don’t even need to learn English to get by, or even learn to read, if you keep the oral tradition of storytelling going.

The stories written by the women (or told by them) scattered through the text are extremely graphic and explicit. They are tied into the stories of the women’s lives, but some people might find them a bit much (some of them made me blush). But they’re earthy and not exactly gratuitous – we all know how groups of people who look like nice quiet older ladies from the outside could make a sailor blush (let alone me) and it’s fair enough, although it might put some people off.

A charming read and I would read other books by this author.