THE SECRETS BETWEEN US, by Thrity Umrigar. Harper, 357 pp., $27.99.
Readers love a good sequel. It’s an enticing prospect to revisit characters who feel like real acquaintances and settings that seem an annex of one’s own consciousness. But the author who grants this wish takes a risk. Think of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Men” or Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” Surely Jo March and Atticus Finch were better off as they were.
On the other hand, where would we be without “The Lord of the Rings” and “Huckleberry Finn,” or more recently, Richard Russo’s “Everybody’s Fool”? A sequel can be a fine thing indeed.
Author Thrity Umrigar says she’s been besieged by fans of her 2006 bestseller, “The Space Between Us.” Readers want to know what happened to Bhima and Sera, a domestic servant and her employer in contemporary Mumbai, after exposed secrets and lies blew up their lives. The novelist had no idea, she says, until one day she began to focus on a minor character named Parvati, a deformed, destitute old woman in the market who sells nasty-looking cauliflower from a tiny square of sidewalk she defends as her own. Committed to purchasing only the finest for Serabai’s household, Bhima stepped past Parvati in disgust.
In “The Secrets Between Us,” Parvati becomes a main character, and a more thrilling and daring creation than anyone else in the story. Unfortunately, nothing can be revealed here about her past, her capabilities or her current situation without spoilers. Parvati moves to the center of the action when Bhima tries to help a neighbor whose husband has been murdered in sectarian violence. The dead man was a vendor of custard apples and had already paid for a large order; since the merchant will not refund the money, Bhima decides to try to sell the shipment for the widow. This proves much more complicated than she expected, and she ends up needing help from the very woman she has snubbed so many times.
New in this sequel are Sunita and Chitra, a lesbian couple for whom Bhima cleans house. These characters bring into play additional aspects of the byzantine Indian social hierarchy and its attendant moral strictures. The unpacking of these complications is one of the pleasures of Umrigar’s storytelling, one aspect of the immersive trip to India that her novels provide. The physicality of her writing, whether she’s describing the revolting sanitary conditions of Bhima’s slum or the slick, frigid ambience of an upscale shopping mall, is another. So, too, is the intricate language of nicknames and honorifics (didi, bai, baba, seth, mausi) and the rhyming slang — “worry-forry,” “poetry-foetry,” “permit-fermit” and “ask-fask”).
On a deeper level, the book provides an almost “Siddhartha”-esque experience of sharing a character’s spiritual journey, as the plot takes Bhima and Parvati to places where they must question their preconceptions, search their souls and ultimately change. At the heart of it all is a question that Bhima turns over and over in her mind: “Is it the special curse of women, to keep other people’s secrets and carry their shame? What would happen, she wonders, if all of them — Parvati, Serabai, Sunitabai — simply put down their loads one day and refused to pick them up again? She remembers what Parvati had once said to her — it is our secrets that define us.”
Perhaps the only misstep in “The Secrets Between Us” occurs at the very end, in a denouement that takes the narrative from dirty realism to pure fairy tale. Perhaps Umrigar is just trying to make sure the story’s really over this time. This reader forgives her.