“It’s funny, being a girl. That thing that’s supposed to push you down, defeat you, shove you back, bad, and farther back still? Turn it the right way, and it’ll push you forward instead.”
A People’s History of Heaven is a rich, poignant river of poeticism that pulls you slowly and irresistably through the lives of five remarkable girls and the women surrounding them. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and I give it five stars without the slightest reservation.
Where do I even start? Heaven is an Indian slum, populated mostly by women and their children. At the center of the novel are five girls, all the same age, all residents of Heaven, and all fiercely devoted to each other, their families, and their home. They are Christian, Muslim, and Hindu. Deepa is blind. Joy is transgender. Padma is forced to act as the primary caretaker of her family, including her parents. Rukshana is queer. Banu struggles academically and lives with her aging grandmother. Yet for all of their struggles and all of their differences, the five remain inseparable and indomitable.
The book takes place in two timelines. One is a linear, present-day narrative, as the girls face down a team of bulldozers sent to tear down Heaven. The other is a patchwork history that jumps effortlessly through time, chronicling the girls’ lives from childhood to now. Interwoven with their stories are the stories of the women around them–mothers, grandmothers, and teachers, all pushing to rise above their pasts and give their daughters a better future. Though the plot may not sound like much, Mathangi Subramanian crafts an intimate, intricate, immersive portrait of a vibrant community that you can’t help but feel fully emotionally invested in. As a result, the story becomes nearly impossible to put down.
Where this novel truly excels, though, is in its use of language. Subramanian’s prose is poetic without being excessively flashy, full of color and alliterations and elegantly crafted metaphors that positively sing from the pages. In a move that could have fallen horribly flat, but instead only magnifies the story, the entire book is narrated by the girls as a single unit. There is never an “I,” only a “we,” with individual girls’ stories described in the third person only, as if they are talking about each other.
In an age of constant urban expansion, where members of many societies face oppression and the threat of erasure, this book is critically important. Indian narratives are often neglected in American popular culture–sure, we loved Slumdog Millionaire (even though it veered widely from the original book, Q & A), and some literature classes study The God of Small Things–but in general, stories like this one escape the consciousness of Western society. The novel actually touches on this fact as it introduces a white photographer who is sent to chronicle the demolition, claiming she wants to help, though the girls know she will only paint them in the most tragic light possible and still nobody will come to their aid. Subramanian uses the unfiltered opinions of youth to sharply point out injustices imposed by the patriarchy, by the government, and by Western globalization.
Women and girls have historically been forgotten and pushed aside in favor of male narratives, but they are the beating heart of this story, smiling defiantly even when the odds are against them. And if you want to talk about intersectional feminism–well, with their varying religions, abilities, sexualities, genders, and histories, all of these minority women are a shining example of what girls are really capable of when they band together. These girls are not weak; they are complex and smart and strong beyond imagining.
A few other random things I enjoyed:
– Janaki Ma’am, the principal of the girls’ school, is a true gem of a human being, and everyone should strive to be more like her.
– While there were some bad men in the book, there were also plenty of good ones. There was no misandry here.
– Straight, cis characters supporting their trans friends make me so happy.
– The number of times Joy was described as being “like a queen,” even when facing hostility.
– Disabled characters weren’t defined by their disabilities, but they also weren’t treated solely like disadvantages. They were simply regarded as facts of life.
In college, I took a course on post-colonial Indian literature. If the professor for the course had not retired, I would be sending her an email saying that she should add this book to the curriculum. But this isn’t just an excellent work for literary study; it is an excellent piece of literature for everybody. It is gorgeously written, broken into easily digestible sections that make it compulsively readable, and takes on critical issues from a beautifully human point of view. It is unflinching but also compassionate, its bleak realities always threaded through with brilliant sensory detail and laced with the hopes and dreams of its characters. And those characters–those incredible girls and women–are truly unforgettable.
I was provided with an ARC of this book from the publisher through a Goodreads giveaway. This did not influence my rating in any way.