“Sisterhood of Swans” by Selma Carvalho

Selma Carvalho Selma Carvalho

Belonging—either to another person, a family or a nation—is the key theme of this exquisite coming-of-age novel from British-Asian writer Selma Carvalho. Carvalho has published three non-fiction books which document the Goan migration to colonial East Africa. Her intimate understanding of the diasporic experience shines through every page as she explores her characters’ search for “home”.

Set in Horton, a dreary village “on the hem of north London”, the story is narrated by Anna-Marie Souza, the 26-year-old only child of Ines and Francisco. They came to Britain in 1989 from Bombay, looking for a new life. Sadly the relationship fell apart and Francisco moved out, setting up house with a new partner, Martha, and her son, Daniel.

The estrangement from “Daddy” hits Anna-Marie hard. In a bid to replace the emotional security he provided, she embarks on a series of disastrous relationships, careering like a tragic Bridget Jones from Daddy’s stepson Daniel to her best friend’s boyfriend Nathu and eventually a married man, the philandering Sanjay.

Anna-Marie keeps searching for le grand amour, a relationship with whom will finally make sense of her life, even as she recognizes the quest is pointless. Carvalho writes:


She knows. Just as every woman knows. We belong to the sisterhood of swans, seeking to pair for life, curving our necks to entwine with the perfect mate. Only we seldom find them. Our species is doomed to disappointment.


Sisterhood of Swans, Selma Carvalho (Speaking Tiger, September 2021)
Sisterhood of Swans, Selma Carvalho (Speaking Tiger, September 2021)

In the hands of a less skilled writer, such naivety might push the boundaries of credibility. Carvalho however gives an entirely convincing picture of a youthful romantic imagination at work, full of unrequited yearning and sad poetry, and one which most readers will recognize having experienced themselves. Carvalho has a magnificent and laugh-out-loud twist on the cliché that women think they can change men. Anna-Marie says of Sanjay: “I’m convinced I can break him down and remould him to what I need. Women are built to believe we can restore men to their pure selves.”

Anna-Marie’s mother adds to her self-imposed pressure to partner up. Ines is a wonderfully drawn portrait of an old-school feminist and intellectual snob who nonetheless expects her daughter to marry well and marry Catholic. She is also a sparring partner for Anna-Marie’s more contemporary brand of female emancipation and, perhaps more importantly, a case study. For Ines, the move to Britain didn’t provide the life she imagined. Francisco couldn’t achieve the ambitions she had for him and she remains bitter.

In fact, every character in the novel reflects some aspect of the immigration journey as well as playing their role in the wider love story. Ines wants to maintain her Catholic-Goan identity, and for Anna-Marie to follow suit through marriage. She spirits her off to a Winter Tea Dance where she can meet “some nice Goan men, good Catholic men of your own kind, in London”.

In contrast, Nathu aspires for complete integration. By the end of the novel, he is a successful lawyer married to an English woman, living in a house she inherited from her colonial forebears. Sanjay, on the other hand, is somewhat lost between borders, holding down a stressful middle-manager job at a Tesco supermarket while scheduling adulterous affairs. His home reflects his mindset, as Anna-Marie notes:


There is nothing here that says this house wants to be part of London. This is a house in denial about where it belongs. It’s a withdrawal into a proud conservatism which Asian lives flaunt, but also want to escape.


Anna-Marie’s fortunes improve once she gives birth to Sanjay’s baby, a girl, also called Ines. The newborn opens the door to a reconciliation with Francisco and a meeting with Nathu which lays the ghost of their relationship to rest. Finally Anna-Marie can admit her guilt to her best friend, Sujata, and is forgiven. She also realizes that she thinks of Horton as home. The pair debate Nathu’s success. Anna-Marie criticizes him for forgetting his roots and leaving the community behind. Sujata replies that denigrating his success is tantamount to denying him the right to belong to the UK and points out that Anna-Marie is clinging on to a past conjured up in her own head; an even more conservative position. Sujata then voices the most important message of the novel: “if we are to grow, we have to reach beyond the narrow confines of our own definition of what it is to belong.”

Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.