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Sharon Maas: Peacocks Dancing

This book fails with its somewhat weak and contrived ending but, before then, it is not a bad book, starting off with the story of a girl/young woman growing up in Guyana and ending with child prostitution in India. We first meet Rita Maraj when she is six. She writes in her diary (with appropriate spelling mistakes), in order to introduce herself. Rita is the child of mixed parentage. Her mother was black but died giving birth to Rita while her father, Ronnie is of Indian descent. Ronnie is somewhat irresponsible but he has a skill for writing and manages to land a job on the local paper. By the end of the book, he will be editor. Left more or less to her own devices, with only a maid, Mildred, to supervise her, Rita does pretty well what she wants. She adores animals, particularly waifs and strays, so the house is full of animals – injured cats and dogs, but also other animals, including ants, whom she nurtures. At school, she is intelligent, but rebellious and far from attentive. However, she is not interested in school, only in her animals and her group of friends who help her with her animals.

Everything changes when Ronnie brings home a new wife, Marilyn. Unbeknown to Rita, Marilyn is pregnant, though Rita soon finds out as Marilyn makes a great point of saying that she is going to have a son and Rita will be supplanted in her father’s affections. More importantly, Marilyn likes tidiness and order. Rita’s injured dog disappears – put down by Marilyn – as do her other animals and her various little hiding places that she has constructed around the large house and garden. Stepmother and stepdaughter are clearly not going to get on. Rita reacts badly. She breaks off with her friend Poppy and even runs away and hides. When Marilyn miscarries, Rita is really quite happy. Marilyn will miscarry again, before having a daughter, Isabelle. Initially, Rita resents her sister, who is, of course, the apple of her mother’s eye, but soon she becomes very protective of her and, as she says later, almost like a mother to her. Isabelle follows her big sister adoringly. Then the Tragedy occurs. Marilyn, Isabelle and Rita are out Christmas shopping. Marilyn takes Isabelle and Rita looks around. Marilyn then asks Rita to look after Isabelle. Rita gets bored and starts reading her book. Suddenly, she notices that Isabelle is not there. She hears shouting outside and dashes out, to see that Isabelle has been hit by a car. It turns out that she had seen Santa across the road and dashed out across the road to see him and was hit by a car. She is taken to hospital and, fortunately, eventually recovers. Marilyn is, naturally, even more critical of Rita, while Isabelle changes from being a sweet girl to a thoroughly obnoxious one.

We watch the pair grow up. Rita remains something of a tomboy though she does have a couple of boyfriends. Isabelle, however, turns out to be very glamorous and wins all the boys, even stealing one from Rita. Isabelle even enters the Miss Guyana contest. Rita, meanwhile, follows in her father’s footsteps and becomes a journalist. Another major event occurs when a man comes, allegedly from the Marajs’ rich relatives in India, and tells them that the Maharani is looking for a male relative. It turns out that Ronnie may be the only one. We have had a glimpse of both the Maharani and Kemal, her grandson and next of kin. After losing her boyfriend to Isabelle, Rita decides to go to India to find her roots and meet her rich relatives. The story takes a marked change at this point as Isabelle pursues her quest for riches in India while Rita finds about child prostitution in India and tries to do something about it, nearly getting herself into serious trouble.

The part about child prostitution, apart from an overly melodramatic ending, is well told and Maas is clearly very much concerned about bringing this scandal to the eye of the public. Similarly, the first part of the book – Rita’s growing up and her story of not quite fitting in with what is expected of her, her relationship with her sister (or two sisters, if you will, the pre- and post-accident Isabelle) and her struggle to find out who she is and where she is going are very well told by Maas. But the ending does detract somewhat from the overall enjoyment of the book.

Publishing history

First published by HarperCollins 2002