Beloved Strangers by Maria Chaudhuri

21st Jan 2014

Beloved Strangers cover
It's a funny thing when a memoir's purpose to replicate a life authentically can be both its failing and its strength...

On beginning Maria Chaudhuri’s Beloved Strangers this reviewer was reminded of why she avoids reading memoirs; characters come and go only partially fleshed out, strands of story fray and lead to nothing, emotions are inconceivably romanticised in the author’s retrospect.

Why? Presumably, it is because that’s life. And life is rarely as consistently compelling as a story.

Chaudhuri’s début book contains all of these frustrations, but despite this her story is an interesting one. Born and raised in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, Chaudhuri depicts her life as a series of peripheral experiences.

The opening chapter of Beloved Strangers presents us with Maria, a schoolgirl already plotting to run away to America. Sexually curious, resistant to the role custom has dictated for Bangladeshi girls, she finds happiness to be transient at home.

She and her siblings grow up as minor characters in their parent’s passionate, yet volatile relationship. Consistently denied affirmation from her father and feeling something of a hindrance to her mother’s misplaced visions of stardom, Maria in particular grows disillusioned with her lot.

At eighteen, she gains an opportunity to live out her American Dream when she is offered a place at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. As history has taught us however, such dreams are rarely realised.

Thus, Beloved Strangers unfolds as a series of vignettes chronicling dissatisfaction, troubled relationships and cultural discrepancies. Thus, Beloved Strangers  unfolds as a series of vignettes chronicling dissatisfaction, troubled relationships and cultural discrepancies. That may sound desperately depressing but it is Chaudhuri’s emotional journey, rather than her physical one, that holds the most interest.

When she is good, she writes beautifully evocative sentences that express a woman’s struggle to find a resting place between cultures. Best of all is her analysis of her mother and the parallels she reluctantly draws between herself and her discontented parent.

This book feels very much like the product of an MFA, beginning and ending in the proverbial mother’s womb. And it is bitty, but so is life and actually, Chaudhuri should be applauded for emulating that in her non-fiction début.