Vivienne Glance reviews The Historian’s Daughter by Rashida Murphy
The Historian’s Daughter
By Rashida Murphy
Reviewed by VIVIENNE GLANCE
Set in India, Iran and Australia, and spanning several decades, The Historian’s Daughter tackles personal and political trauma through the eyes of Hannah, a young Anglo-Indian girl. Hannah, her sister, Gloria, and their two brothers, love their gentle, caring mother, Farah. She cooks delicious food, and heals their hurts and sickness with herbal medicines, earning her the moniker, the ‘Magician’. Iranian-born Farah calmly tries to protect her children from Gordon, their ill-tempered, unpredictable and abusive father – the ‘Historian’ of the book’s title. The Historian’s aberrant behaviour includes womanising, drinking and locking his so-called ‘mad’ sister, Rani, in the attic. His sanctuary is his library, which is full of books about famous English men, including a series titled The English Conquistadors of India, along with his own father’s diaries. These books are a secret source of fascination for Hannah as she tries to understand herself and her family.
One morning, Hannah discovers that the Magician, Rani and Gloria have all disappeared, and that the Historian has sold the house and is packing them all off to live in Perth, Western Australia. The mystery of these disappearances plagues Hannah as she matures into adulthood, until one day she receives a phone call that starts her on a journey of discovery.
At the centre of this story is an exploration of abandonment, and the fear and insecurity that this sudden change can evoke in a child. By using the adult Hannah as narrator, the emotions of her child-self are handled with hindsight, thus allowing adult readers space to reflect on their own childhood confusions. We are also exposed to the unreliable memory of a child, so places and family are seen from a restricted perspective; one that senses there is more to a situation or a person, but is unable to fully understand what this is.
This childhood perspective, which is set entirely in India, fills the entire first part of this four-part novel, and is titled simply ‘Family’. With well-crafted vignettes, Murphy builds a sense of life set within this rambling ‘house with too many windows and women’, shadowed by hills ‘with their memory of forest, of deodar, oak and pine, of rivers and waterfalls’ (p. 1). Amongst the smells of cooking and the many rooms of the house, we come across aunties who visit and then never leave. They are a background dissonance to the music of the home, as they clean or eat, scold the children or call them ‘half-breeds’, or debate if they are Anglo-Iranian or Anglo-Indian. Hannah who is darker than her siblings, learns from the always grumpy Aunty Meher that she is a ‘kallo’ or a throwback (p. 4).
This sense of uncertain identity gently murmurs throughout the story; it is never explained or excused, but is presented as it is experienced by Hannah, and so is without any judgement or angst. Nonetheless, Hannah’s origins become a central part of the narrative when she begins to suspect her familial ties are not what they seem.
Murphy deftly creates a compelling atmosphere through small moments that slowly accumulate and then resonate around this extended family. By showing us their lives in patchwork we become familiar with a culture and place that may have seemed exotic or distant if merely described.
She also fractures the narrative chronologically, again reflecting memory, telling the story non-linearly. We are invited to sit within this first part of the book, almost as if a guest of the family, and so, over several years, will become familiar with the rhythms of their lives. The weaving of the narrative through time occasionally feels too measured, but by staying with this first part we are rewarded as the book opens out in the second part: Immigrants.
When, Hannah wakes up to discover the Magician, Rani and Gloria have disappeared, she blames herself. The Magician had allowed the son of a distant relative from Iran to stay with them. Sohrab reminds the Magician of her homeland, and Hannah feels the closeness she had to her mother become disrupted as she hears her speaking Farsi to him, and cooking unusual foods. Sohrab and Gloria grow into adolescence, and Hannah is disturbed as she notices they have become close. When she discovers them kissing, this increases her sense of betrayal. Her immature perspective only sees that Sohrab has taken both her mother and sister from her, and in anger she tells the Historian what she has seen. The upheaval that follows is more than the Magician can smooth over.
At the same time, we are taken into the future, when the Historian moves Hannah and her brothers, Clive and Warren, to Perth in Western Australia. It is at this point that Hannah is exposed to other possibilities in her life, and she matures into her own person.
It is also the moment when there is a subtle shift in how Murphy tells the story. Up until this point the story has been set within the confines of the house. The rooms are defined by their function and by the people who inhabit them. Once in Australia, the wider world impinges on Hannah and broadens her outlook.
Two particularly stunning passages describe the effect seeing the ocean and Kings Park has on her. Her limited horizons are quite literally expanded, such as: ‘Nothing could have prepared me for the ostentatious sky, silver sand and emerald water on a summer morning’; or Kings Park ‘where tall eucalypts carried the names of lost soldiers at their base and the hill sloped down towards the city and the river’ (pp. 101-102).
As Hannah moves from the interior world of her childhood to the outdoor world of Perth, she matures into a young woman who no longer fears the Historian and begins to strike out on her own. She meets Gabriel, a wood turner, who is a kind of iconic Australian male, complete with a red dog and shed. Until that phone call.
It is this incident that promotes a quickening of the pace of the narrative and we are thrown into the turmoil of dislocation and trauma. Set mainly in Iran, Hannah is thrown into a world where real terror comes in the form of soldiers knocking on doors in the middle of the night and taking people away. Where any misstep by a woman in public could lead to her death. Unable to leave her sister to escape from Iran alone, Hannah accompanies Gloria on the dangerous journey, aided by people smugglers. Their fear of uncertainty contrasts with the need to trust unknown others with your fate; blinded by the dust of the road and sustained by meagre bowls of rice and scare water to drink.
Murphy takes us on the journey many desperate people have endured to find safety, and effectively pulls us into their orbit. She shows real people struggling to stay alive, and avoids easy polemics by keeping us as much in the dark about the future as Hannah is. We are there with her as she is shut up for days in the back of a van, or hidden in a room in Karachi with little food.
Murphy does not allow the story to be side-tracked by politics or the bureaucracy of illegal immigration, being more interested in the emotional journeys of her characters, particularly the women.
Her focus throughout the book is firmly on how women navigate the places they find themselves in. The Historian’s Daughter provides a unique perspective by adding in questions of racial identity, familial duty, the challenges of immigration and dislocation, and the lasting effects of trauma from abandonment. How the women of this book are treated by men and the wider society, and how they treat each other, creates a compelling story for both male and female readers. Avoiding exoticism, we are invited to look through the partially opaque windows of memory and see the present-day struggles of immigrants in a new light.
The Historian’s Daughter is a fine debut novel from a writer who is confident with her material and takes risks with her narrative structure. Murphy presents us with deeply moving moments that test her characters, and creates a poignant atmosphere that resolves through reconciliation into a hopeful future.
VIVIENNE GLANCE’S work as a playwright, short story writer and poet, has been published and presented in Australia and internationally. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia where she is an Honorary Research Fellow. Her interests particularly lie at the intersection of science and art, and advocating for cultural diversity in the arts.