The Sound Mirror by Heidi James

Tamara is on the way to kill her mother. This is how the novel opens, with the threat of murder. Of course, it isn’t quite that. Tamara’s estranged mother is on life support and has, surprisingly, asked for Tamara to be there, to be the one that oversees the machines being switched off. 

Inside Tamara’s DNA lurk the voices of the women who have gone before and seeping out of this jumble of experience come the other narratives. I don’t think I’ll be spoiling too much to say that these voices are Tamara’s past, her grandmothers Ada and Claire, who tell us their own journeys as they reflect and refract back onto the molecular canvases of their mothers’ faces. A seemingly endless sound mirror that Tamara has decided to end through sterilization. There will be no more women to continue this line.

So as we travel with Tamara through the traffic and onto the motorway, we also learn about Claire, from a large working class family of Italian Catholic descent, living in London. We see her sent to Wales as an evacuee. Watch as her promising education is cut short to help her father’s grocery business and learn about what it means to make sacrifices for love.

We also travel with Ada, a British-Indian, whose family take the boat to England as Indian Independence leaves them in a precarious position not entirely solved in the new gloomy climate. Luckily for Ada, her pale skin and her beauty give her access to a more privileged world. From the safety of her respectable marriage, she plays with the ‘exotic’ label and all the racist, sexist condescension it holds, by exploiting and revelling in men’s desire.

Through Tamara and her grandmothers we see Tamara’s childhood unfold, we understand what it has taken to bring Tamara into being. There are many painful moments on that journey, moments that bite and sting, that throw the whole nature/nurture debate into turmoil, daring us to stare ourselves in the face, to reflect upon the many things that make us into this endless becoming of fluctuating self.

Towards the end of the novel, Tamara is reflecting upon the end of her mother’s life: ‘We all become our mothers eventually. Silenced, poisoned with rage. Mad with fury. But more than that, so much more. All that we’ve swallowed, remade, taken in our stride. So much more than that.’ This passage feels central to me. The thrum of emancipation, the battle with prejudice on many levels, is a battle for both escape and recognition. 

Told in prose that is eloquent, sharp and heart-wrenchingly direct, The Sound Mirror is a novel that stabs you in the bowel; you can feel history blistering your skin as you are forced to reflect on what it means to be a woman in the twentieth and twenty-first century. I loved this book. This is Heidi James at her best. Scintillating, titillating, enraging, engaging, just bloody great, The Sound Mirror is guaranteed to get your mind and heart working overtime. Out in August, pre-order it now from the fabulous Bluemoose Books. You can also order all of her previous books. If you haven’t read them already, you are in for a treat.

I’ll be reviewing The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson next.