Special thanks to Algonquin Books for the gifted ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!
Goodreads: A People’s History of Heaven
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Published: 19 March 2019
Genre: Literary Fiction
Heaven is a thirty-year-old slum hidden between brand-new, high-rise apartment buildings and technology incubators in contemporary Bangalore. In this tight-knit community, five girls on the cusp of womanhood-a politically driven graffiti artist; a transgender Christian convert; a blind girl who loves to dance; and the queer daughter of a hijabi union leader-forge an unbreakable bond.
When the local government threatens to demolish their tin shacks in order to build a shopping mall, the girls and their mothers refuse to be erased. Together they wage war on the bulldozers sent to bury their homes, and, ultimately, on the city that wishes that families like them would remain hidden forever.
Elegant, poetic, and vibrant, A People’s History of Heaven takes a clear-eyed look at adversity and geography and dazzles in its depiction of love and female friendship.
TL;DR: A People’s History of Heaven is a beautifully crafted literary debut full of so much heart! With her lyrical prose and vivid descriptions of everyday life, it was as if Mathangi Subramanian reached through the pages of this novel and pulled me right into Heaven itself. This is a story about the strong and proud women that live in Heaven—the grandmothers, the mothers, and the daughters, who do whatever it takes to survive the hardships of not only living in a slum but being part of an oppressive patriarchal society that was not designed for women and girls to succeed.
I really enjoyed Subramanian’s writing! It was sharp, poetic and flowed so well and combined with the relatively short sections, it made for a very fast and easy read. The author managed to simply and evocatively convey the richness of the setting, from everyday life in Heaven to the bustling megacity that is Bangalore, and the sociocultural tapestry that makes up life for these women and girls. This is a character-driven story told through the perspective of an unidentified narrator, who teaches us the history of the people of heaven—particularly focusing on five girls and their mothers/grandmothers. There is a fairly loose plot-line that serves as the backdrop for us learning about these characters, namely that they’re trying to save Heaven from being destroyed and turned into another mall or office space as the city of Bangalore further develops.
While the girls and their mothers are the main players in this story, it was initially a little confusing to keep track of who was who to who and what they did, but once we get to know them through their histories, the more they individually stood out. These characters had such captivating and often heartbreaking backstories but they blew me away with their empowering strength and the way they never stopped making the best of their lives, and most importantly, the way they never stopped dreaming and reaching for more. There’s definitely a lot packed into this seemingly simple story but it’s done in clever ways that made this an even more compelling read! I especially enjoyed the way Subramanian confronted poverty or more specifically, the “poverty porn” aspect in the story. As someone who works in the development aid sector, the irony is too real but I loved the way these girls owned the narrative!
I absolutely loved Deepa, the blind dancer; Banu, the quiet artist; Joy, the converted Christian transgender; Padma, the only daughter with a ‘good father’ and a mother with an untreated mental illness leaving her to grow up faster than expected; and Rukshana, the queer daughter of a very vocal Muslim activist in the slum. These girls have such a fantastic and unbreakable bond and I loved to see the ways they steadfastly supported each other, especially when faced with the often very harsh realities of their lives. That said, although they wear these “neat labels”, we learn about their individual struggles, their hopes and dreams for the future, and what makes them more than how the world sees them. They’re such bright, sassy, sharp-witted and resourceful young girls and it was fantastic to view their world through their eyes. Their stories really brought this book to life!
Overall, this is a book rich in culture, diversity and strong, empowering and supportive women. If you enjoy literary fiction, character-driven stories, and stories about and from other cultures, I would highly recommend checking this out! I’m looking forward to reading more of Subramanian’s work in the future 🙂
Have you read The Hand of the Sun King or is it on your TBR?