Friday, June 05, 2020

The Orphan's Gift by Renita D'Silva, set in India and England across the 20th century

Spanning over 70 years, Renita D’Silva’s newest novel is a touching generational saga about women searching for belonging, falling in love, enduring loss, and learning from past mistakes. Daughter of the deputy commissioner for her region, Alice Harris lives in an elegant compound in the small city of Jamjadpur in early 20th-century India, knowing every material comfort but lacking parental affection. She grows up cocooned in the constant love of her nanny, a local woman she calls Ayah, and Ayah’s son, Raju, who is her playmate and best friend.

In the 1940s, Janaki is raised by Carmelite nuns in a poor orphanage in the city center. While she dreams of being adopted by kind parents, that chance seems progressively more unlikely over time. Sister Shanthi often tells Janaki the story of how the nuns first found her, a blue-eyed newborn wrapped in a cardigan and left at the gate of St. Ursula’s during the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1936.

The viewpoint alternates between Alice and Janaki, whose connection should be obvious, and the author doesn’t pretend otherwise. Rather, the story follows both girls’ separate journeys and keeps us wondering whether they’ll ever meet.

Some characterizations aren’t subtle: Alice’s cold-hearted father offers statements about India like “They want independence, self-rule, but without us they would not manage at all.” Her mother is a wilting English flower who revives only to party in the cool evenings. More layered is the portrait of blind privilege that D’Silva creates for Alice. As adolescents, she and Raju act on their mutual attraction, sharing a brief kiss, and the repercussions are more dire for him and his family.

With its fast-moving plot and evocation of the sights, scents, and flavors of India, the novel should please fans of commercial women’s fiction and atmospheric settings.

The Orphan's Gift was published by Bookouture in 2020; I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review in May.

Renita D'Silva, an author from the South of India, has written historical, contemporary, and multi-period novels. Here are links to two others I've reviewed on this site:

A Daughter's Courage, about four women's stories in South India, past and present.
Beneath an Indian Sky, about a childhood friendship between British and Indian girls in the '30s and after.


  1. This sounds like a book I would enjoy.

  2. I've enjoyed all her books, despite some quibbles.

  3. This is a book I would have enjoyed and I am sorry it is archived now. Thanks for the review.