Review: The Daughters of Madurai by Rajasree Variyar (2023)


Madurai, 1992.

A young mother in a poor family, Janani is told she is useless if she can’t produce a son – or worse, bears daughters. They let her keep her first baby girl, but the rest are taken away as soon as they are born – murdered before they have a chance to live. The fate of her children has never been in her hands. But Janani can’t forget the daughters she was never allowed to love.

Sydney, 2019. Nila has a secret, one she’s been keeping from her parents for far too long. Before she can say anything, her grandfather in India falls ill and she agrees to join her parents on a trip to Madurai – the first in over ten years.

Growing up in Australia, Nila knows very little about where she or her family came from, or who they left behind. What she’s about to learn will change her forever.


Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a beautiful proof copy of The Daughters of Madurai in exchange for an honest review.

I knew this novel would be an emotional read – centering on the horrific practice of female infanticide, even the blurb is deeply moving – but I wasn’t prepared for the journey this book would take me on. The elegance of the prose, the back and forth of the shifting timelines, and above all the quiet strength of Janani, one of most finely drawn characters I’ve come across in a long time, all adds up to an incredibly powerful reading experience.

The structure of the book is really clever – questions are raised by the gaps in the story, and the answers come gradually, naturally, with all the realism of uncovering family secrets from tight-lipped relatives who prefer to leave the past untouched. While Janani had my heart, her daughter, Nila, is also a fascinating character, trying to carve out her own identity from a rockface of silence, looking to the past and the future at the same time, acting as a guide for the reader as we travel back to India and to her parents’ past.

There are brutal scenes, and tragedies that feel all too real, but there is also love and tenderness in these pages – romantic love, and the deep connection of friendship and shared experiences. The way the characters interact with each other in the book is a masterclass in characterisation, in that push and pull between what can and can’t be spoken aloud. It aches with emotion, bruised souls bumping up against each other and pressing on invisible wounds. I finished the novel feeling as if I really knew these people, particularly Janani, for whom I had so much admiration. The author makes the characters come to life so vividly that I whispered goodbye to them when I finished reading, and wished them well.

The Daughters of Madurai is a powerful, important, beautifully written novel, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Daughters of Madurai by Rajasree Variyar is published by Orion and is available to preorder here.


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