Mrs. Sangha always has permitted her young daughter, Rose, to play with the housemaid's son, Harry. Dolly, the housemaid, widowed and struggling...

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“He Drown She in the Sea”
by Shani Mootoo
Grove, 324 pp., $23

Mrs. Sangha always has permitted her young daughter, Rose, to play with the housemaid’s son, Harry. Dolly, the housemaid, widowed and struggling, worries that her son might be too fixated on the friendship. World War II is about to visit the Caribbean island of Guanagaspar, on which the two Indian families live in strikingly different economic situations. One morning, Mrs. Sangha’s husband returns home in the wake of an air-raid drill to find young Rose and Harry asleep in the same bed. In spite of his wife’s protests — she had invited Harry and Dolly to stay overnight because of the drill — Rose’s father bans Harry and his mother from the house forever.

Jump forward about 20 years. Rose Sangha now is married to Shem Bihar, Guanagaspar’s politically powerful attorney general. Harry occasionally drops by the Bihar home with crates of fresh eggs to give Rose. The two enjoy short visits over the fence as their lives continue in separate directions.

Times change; the post-war racial tension brewing on Guanagaspar now has blown wide open. Black power fires the Afro-Caribbean population. Violent demonstrations against Indo-Caribbean economic control have sent many Indian merchants fleeing the island, to start lives anew in less troubled societies. Rose’s husband is prosecuting Afro-Caribbean activists. Harry, now a successful businessman and divorced from a noxious wife, immigrates to Canada.

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Living in the hamlet of Elderberry Bay, southwest of Vancouver, B.C., Harry learns that Rose Bihar and her daughter are coming to Vancouver for a holiday. Rose writes that she would like to meet with Harry. The result of this encounter completes the story of Harry and Rose’s shared love. What happens next is predictable but, even so, chilling.

This is a story about the two mothers, Dolly Persad and Mrs. Sangha, as much as it is the tale of Harry and Rose’s intertwined lives. Both are strong-hearted women who share the frustration of navigating a male-dominated society that many American women today might find simply unbelievable. Any woman who has ever felt that she forged her own way in this world should read this novel. Had it not been for the Dolly Persads and Mrs. Sanghas, women’s liberation would be, quite simply, fiction.