Books

Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy review: A gripping novel about heritage, exile, friendship and family

This profound, far-reaching novel journeys across continents and decades, with stops in Nuremberg, London, Glasgow, and even WG Sebalds’s Austerlitz.

Photo: Eric Ward / Unsplash

Chitra Ramaswamy’s remarkable new book Homelands is billed as a history of the friendship forged between the British Indian author and Jewish refugee Henry Wuga, who came to Scotland at 15 on the Kindertransport. And it does beautifully evoke the unfurling of their unlikely relationship which began when she interviewed Wuga in 2011 and deepened until she saw him as her adopted grandfather.

Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy is out on April 21 (Canongate, £16.99)

But there is much more to the book than this. It’s about exile, identity and motherhood. It’s about our connections with places and what happens when those connections are severed; it’s about Empire and colonialism, and how those fleeing oppression are othered.

Homelands is dizzyingly ambitious. Ramaswamy interweaves her family’s history and Wuga’s against a backdrop of their ongoing sorrows: Wuga’s wife Ingrid’s dementia, Ramaswamy’s mother’s cancer. One minute we can be in war-torn Nuremberg, the next in her parents’ London kitchen, a pot simmering on the stove.

There are moments when you wonder if she can sustain this trapeze act, but she swoops from setting to setting and decade to decade without ever losing her grip.

Ramaswamy’s grief floods the book, producing sentences that would rip your heart out

The backbone of Homelands is Wuga’s story. His mother was a German Jew, his father an Austrian gentile. As the Nazi persecution escalated he was sent to train as a chef in Baden-Baden and then to Glasgow where – after a period of internment – he met and married Ingrid. The couple had two daughters and set up a kosher catering company.

Later, they would give talks on the evils of Nazism. Despite their losses, neither Henry nor Ingrid had direct experience of concentration camps: Wuga’s mother survived the war in hiding, while Ingrid’s parents made it to Scotland. So Ramaswamy draws on WG Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, moving deftly from his protagonist to hers, to fill any emotional gaps.

Immersing herself in Wuga’s past, she finds commonalities with her own life and the lives of other immigrant families. She understands the cost of assimilation: the way Wuga hurt his mother by concealing the fact his father was not Jewish; the way Ramaswamy’s parents’ failure to teach their daughters Hindi left them linguistically estranged from their Indian relatives. 

Some parallels are a revelation. Only after Covid restrictions keep her from her dying mother’s bedside does Ramaswamy reflect that “a faraway death is a common feature of the immigrant experience.” She remembers, then, her mum and dad taking phone calls informing them of their parents’ passing; just as the news of Wuga’s father’s death was broken to him by letter.

Ramaswamy receives her call just after 3am. Her grief floods the book, producing sentences that would rip your heart out and transforming Homelands into something extraordinary: a raw reminder that love and pain are inextricable, and at the heart of everything that matters.

Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy is out now on Canongate Books, £16.99

You can buy Homelands from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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