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The Secret Children

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Assam, 1925. James MacDonald is a son of the empire who has no yearning for England. Running a tea plantation, he loves India and is reluctant to choose a British bride from the eager crowds sent over. But when he takes a beautiful young Indian woman as his courtesan, he can little imagine what he has begun.

So starts the story of Mary and Serafina. Born of two worlds, accepted by neither. Growing up beloved but hidden away, their childhood is one of contradiction. It is only as the shadow of war falls and the turmoil of Indian partition begins, that the girls must face the truth about their parents and begin the search for somewhere to belong.

It will be a journey full of forbidden questions, hidden answers, heartbreak and determination. As Serafina and Mary grow into women, they must risk everything and make choices with a legacy that will last a lifetime, and beyond.

448 pages, Paperback

First published January 19, 2012

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About the author

Alison McQueen

3 books39 followers
Born in the sixties to an Indian mother and an English jazz musician father, Alison McQueen grew up in London and worked in advertising for 25 years before retiring to write full time.

Her acclaimed 2012 epic novel, The Secret Children, was inspired by her own family history, and has been translated into several foreign languages. Alison’s latest novel, Under The Jewelled Sky, winner of the prestigious 2014 EMBA Prize, is published by Orion (UK) and by Sourcebooks (US).

Alison is also author of the popular HOUSEWIFE novels, written under her married name and featured on the Richard & Judy Show (published by Macmillan between 2005 and 2011). In 2006, Alison was selected from a long list of 500 writers to join The Writers' Circle - a one-off project put together by the UK/US film industry to nuture and fast-track the UK's top 10 rising writing talents into screenwriting.

Alison McQueen lives in rural Northamptonshire with her family. She is currently working on her 8th novel.

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5 stars
113 (23%)
4 stars
214 (44%)
3 stars
122 (25%)
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23 (4%)
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4 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 51 reviews
Profile Image for Rebecca Shipley.
28 reviews3 followers
March 4, 2013
A story about 2 sisters, born illegitimately to a tea-plantation worker by his concubine, and their lives as they grow up betwixt and between two worlds - never fully accepted by their father and at the mercy of their rapidly declining mother, who is unable to cope with the rejection from her former lover once she has given birth.

It was a good read - the pace was fine, it's not going to set your world on fire but it isn't the worst thing I've ever read either. McQueen is especially good at evoking the spirit of India - making the scenery and atmosphere come alive for you.
Profile Image for Adri.
543 reviews26 followers
May 19, 2013
This book is worth more than 3 stars, but not quite 4. The writing is poetic and the descriptions are very good. I love reading about India - it is such a vast country with so many diverse stories to tell, such different landscapes to visit. The Secret Children tells a story that we have to hear. It was beautiful in places and full of heartbreak in others.

Initially I was troubled by the slow pace of the book, but then I started thinking that it might be in order to give the reader an idea of the pace of life in India, on the tea plantations and the little villages. The pace picks up in the latter stages of the book, but it suffers because of that. There are too many loose ends.

I did enjoy the book and would recommend it to other readers who like a well-turned phrase and a writer who is able to paint with words.
Profile Image for H.
558 reviews20 followers
September 17, 2015
McQueen does an excellent job of bringing the spirit of India alive here. A good solid story full of ups and downs, there are no perfect endings here but it's all very realistic. James infuriated me, he was the most selfish and naive character I've come across in a long time and every chapter he was in I wanted nothing more than to give him a good solid slap across the face! How much pain he set in motion because of his own foolishness.
2 reviews
August 17, 2021
I enjoyed this book very much. The author has a way of drawing you in and making it feel like you are on the journey with each character. Personally I feel like there was so much unsaid. I understand that the book is primarily about the daughters, but I would’ve wanted to know more about the parents. For example, there’s one night where the mother asks the father to stay, and there’s nothing written about what he said to her, but we know that the maid woke up the sobbing of her mistress. The author would leave such rooms for assumption and interpretation, but I’d want to know what exactly was said and how she felt. What exactly was written in the blue letter that serafina read and then decided to burn? I have so many questions. Another thing about the mother is that we don’t get to know her that well, in my opinion. We get to know more about the personality of the mother’s maid than we get to know about the mother herself. Even though the book is about the two sisters, I’d say that the younger sister, Mary, is our main character because we spend more time “in her head” and we see more of her personality. Her sister, Serafina, becomes as much of a mystery to us as she is to Mary. I wish we’d gotten to know more about Serafina. But I will say that it’s very clear that she has the same personality as her mother.
The author definitely made sure to bless us with a happy ending, although the story was very heavy. One thing that struck me after finishing this book is the importance of parenting. Parenting is no easy job and just because you are capable of procreation doesn’t mean that you should do it. Parenting is more than being kind to your kids and giving them gifts. Parenting is about forming a relationship with your family. Mary and Serafina were unwanted children. Their births caused their father to reject their mother, which caused the mother, who didn’t realized that she was a concubine and not a wife, to fall into deep depression. The mom became an alcoholic and would cry all night. Meanwhile, in the eyes of the daughters life was good. They didn’t understand who they were or what was going on until they got older, and it messed with both of them, especially Serafina. These girls struggled their whole lives because one man, James, had to have a beautiful, young Indian concubine. And the concubine was somehow not supposed to get pregnant. James was able to completely sever ties with his daughters and live his life with his wife. It seems he never saw his daughters again, which tells us that he was never fit to be a father. James was a coward.
Lastly the ending felt kind of rushed. The book has a very slow pace and then near the end the pace abruptly quickens. It’s as if the author was trying hard to make the deadline.
Other than that the book was great! I recommend it.
Profile Image for Lisa.
297 reviews3 followers
July 20, 2013
The story was interesting but the writing not that enthralling. The author's mother was born in India to a British father and Indian mother, she and her sister grew up without being accepted in either culture. It's a sad tale but I think the author kept to much to her mothers biography rather than put a literary twist on the book. Many issues unresolved and characters just fade away.
Profile Image for Tara.
63 reviews
May 16, 2015
My star rating might be a bit harsh. This just took me ages to read because I didn't find it very interesting - but its not my usual genre so if you like this sort of thing it might be good.

It read like a biography - and I don't see the point of reading fiction that simply mimics real life. Might as well pick up the real thing.
Profile Image for Felicity.
199 reviews2 followers
December 30, 2012
Sad that innocent children must suffer the sins of their parents and society. If only everyone could see life through the eyes of children, and be accepted for who they are, regardless of race, religion or gender.
Profile Image for Tania.
9 reviews
March 26, 2013
Beautiful descriptions of India which bring it alive but for me the characters failed to develop enough and little happened plot-wise. The plot was pretty mundane. Lots of lose ends.. What happened to most of the main characters in the end?
549 reviews3 followers
April 7, 2014
It is an interesting story but I found it very hard to connect to the characters.

It helps to think of it more as a journal of someone else's journey because the story jumps and I felt very much that those bits were missing because the author didn't know.

Profile Image for Sonja Grönqvist.
352 reviews1 follower
September 4, 2022
Fin og interessant bok som tar leseren gjennom fallet av den britiske kolonialmakten, fra et barneperspektiv.
James er plantasje eier og sahib. Han er ikke interessert i å gifte seg, men kjøper en fattig jente til sin konkubine. Konsekvensene blir store for alle involverte.
James blir veldig glad i sine to døtre, Serafina og Mary, men moren dis forsvinner i psykisk sykdom og det er jo ikke noe gøy for James lenger. Jentene er halvkast, ikke akseptert av hverken indere eller briter, etterhvert blir de sendt til et kostskole. Nå kan James gifte seg med den britiske Dorothy, men ingen av dem kommer helt over James sine hemmelige barn.
Serafina og Mary sloss begge sin vei til voksenliv mellom indiske og britiske. Boken starter og slutter med Serafinas datter Caitlin som, etter sin mors død endelig tør å spør alt det moren ikke har fortalt om sin barndom. På dette punktet minner boken om Kristin Hannahs Vinterhagen. De hemmelige barn har en mer tradisjonell fortellerteknikk, og derfor blir jeg som fullstendig revet med i fortellingen.
Profile Image for Irish Bookfairy.
147 reviews
June 14, 2018
This is the story of two girls born as a result of the urges of an Englishman (Scottish) with an Indian courtesan. They were unwanted in a way, but not unloved either. The story takes us to Assam and paints the life at a tea plantation. Born out of wedlock with two nationalities, belonging to neither, the girls adore the father they rarely get to see, not realizing how many problems their existence really causes. Everything changes for them when the war is about to start and they are shipped off to get an education by nuns and only come home for three months each year.

The book took a slow start for me, had to force myself to keep reading. Might be because it's not the kind of book I usually pick. It's fiction in a way, but based on real events so the lack of happy endings was probably due to true events. I wanted more closure but I guess that wouldn't been impossible given the missing facts. All in all it wasn't a bad book, but it's not one I would probably read again.
1 review
August 19, 2020
This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Such a sad story of two innocents having to grow up the hard way. This story needed to be told and was meticulously researched and sheds light on the terrible predudice and snobbery of colonial India. I was pleased to see in the epilogue that the story was inspired by the authors own family and immediately understood why the characters moved me so much, the truth is always riveting. This book will stay with me a long time and I have now started on her second book.
Profile Image for Shakty.
4 reviews
June 15, 2017
loved how picturesquely Alison explained the British Raj in India. Its slow paced but I loved how both cultures were explained.
1 review
November 15, 2022
Loved reading this book, was always fascinated by that period in history.
I wish there was more to cover the girls' life after leaving India
March 27, 2022
Mary & Serafina hasil anal luar nikah orang British (Ayah) dan orang India (ibu). Oleh kerana mereka berdua ni berketurunan kacukan Inggeris-India jadi mereka ada kesulitan untuk menyesuaikan diri mereka.

Cuma cerita ini lebih ditujukan pasal peperangan dunia II jadi impak cerita tentang anak kacukan hasil luar nikah ni takde impak sangat. Mereka tidak dibuli pun dan mereka berdua dapat menyesuaikan diri mereka dengan baik dan sudah tentu mereka ikut jejak barat sebab ayah mereka orang Inggeris, dapat sekolah dan kerja dalam industri barat dan seterusnya pindah ke negeri barat.

Giving this book 5/5 sebab dari mula hingga hujung akhir, aku baca tanpa skip dan tak jemu.
Profile Image for Mithra.
14 reviews1 follower
June 19, 2013
This book for me was an awakening of all sorts, a dissection of the Anglo-Indian experience as much as it is about being displaced. It also awoke memories of tales passed on through family and friends about the countless acts of injustice meted out by the British during their colonization of India, and the bloodbath they left a fledgling country in. That their officers fathered children with their Indian concubines is probably the mildest casualty.

It is a marvel that Alison McQueen, with her heritage and having grown up in Britain should feel so strongly about all this, and she does, as someone who would like to know where she came from. The first part of the book, that unfolds on the tea plantations of Assam was the most detailed and heartbreaking one of all. It is especially so because the children, Mary and Seraphina, the protagonists of the book are hidden from the world, for no fault of their own. Their questions are met with silence or reprimands, as they struggle to understand why people look at them they way they do.

As the children grow up, however, the chapters move on to Haflong in Assam, and Bombay. And there, McQueen seems less interested in furnishing details, less inclined to paint picturesque, expansive landscapes, and skimming over the relationships that mattered once. It seemed as though McQueen herself did not have actual facts to support her story at this juncture and had abandoned effort. As fiction though, I was dying to know more about some of the central characters in the story, especially the father, whose distant gaze and moody retreats represented his guilt over his thoughtless ways. Such a dynamic character should have been given more space in the latter half of the book, and yet, he disappears to distant lands, retreating from his past and his mistakes. Perhaps, this is what McQueen's grandfather actually did.

However, this is a small snag in a story that is otherwise well-written, a beautiful tale of sorrow and loss. The kind one feels from not belonging, of feeling alien in one's own country, or worse, not knowing. That must be a sad place to be in.
Profile Image for Karen.
865 reviews476 followers
February 5, 2014
On the whole I thought this was an enjoyable read and very descriptive. The characters were well written and the story was an interesting one. James MacDonald came across as a flawed but decent man, who faced the criticism of his peers for taking a young Indian woman as his concubine - such a union ultimately producing two children, rather than follow the tradition of making a suitable marriage. When trouble inevitably came, he did his best to provide a safe start in life for his two children Serafina and Mary. Because of their parentage, the two girls had troubled lives from a very early age but particularly as they grew older and had to deal with prejudice from many of those they encountered.

The relationship between the two sisters was very well developed and you could quite understand how their past would shape their future. The story covered such a large timeframe (1925, 1940, 1953 and finally, briefly 2006) that it would be extremely difficult to fully record the girl’s lives in full, together with those of the other main characters. However I did feel that the jumps in timeline were rather large and some parts of the story were left untold.

My biggest disappointment was with the ending. For me it felt rushed and was unsatisfactorily concluded in only 5 pages. There were some major characters whose outcome remained unknown and who were never mentioned again – I would like to have known the ending of their story too.
Profile Image for Alison.
2,382 reviews35 followers
February 25, 2016
This is the story which begins in Assam, a state in the north-eastern region of India, which shares it__s borders in the North and East with the Kingdom of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.

It starts off in 1925 on a tea plantation in the time of the British supremacy in India. James McDonald one of the first generation of Britishers to be born there to his Scottish parents, oversees a tea plantation. He loves India, but does not want to settle down with a British wife, and he ends up keeping a beautiful Indian woman, Chinthimani as a courtesan, who bears him two daughters, who become the center of this story. Even though loved by both their parents, Serafina and Mary grow up not feeling that they really belong anywhere, and hidden from society because of their mixed parentage. Throughout this story we see see how this deed, brings heartache for both of these children's parents and for the children themselves as they grow up looking for their own identity.
Beautifully told, with wonderfully descriptive prose, that is not only about scenes of India, but of emotions as well. This book was also based on the authors family, which made it all the more fascinating.
58 reviews1 follower
June 12, 2014
I enjoyed this book, set in the 1920s in India. James McDonald, a tea plantation manager, takes a concubine and is shocked when she give birth to two girls. He couldn't accept these girls totally and sends them away to a convent boarding school. The mother rejected by James, goes off the rails, seeks comfort in alcohol.
James regretted his actions for the rest of his life. It's a though provoking book, yet another example of how the British dealt with the situation of a British man taking a local Indian lady for his own pleasures and then pushing everything under the carpet in an effort to erase the problem. This book is based on the author's own family history and I found the book interesting. Some of the characters could have been better described and more details of the girls in later life would have been good.
1 review
May 18, 2016
Oh my God what a novel , after so long read something that made me to grab computer and write a review , as belong to sub continent region and settled in England can assure the justice done by author in describing the two worlds. Want to cry at the end and wished if there were any pictures of chinthimani or James, was quite sad to read the author answer when asked which character she finds inspiring (in last pages) and she talked about Dorothy etc but I believe even the author was unable to feel the pain of chinthimani , no doubt Dorothy was a decent character but the pain and sacrifice of chinthimani can never be understood only if u travel to India and live there only then you can realise the pain of that poor soul , but overall a marvellous novel to remembered. Thanks for writing a great novel
Profile Image for Sarah Herft.
13 reviews
March 9, 2014
I have just turned the last page of The Secret Children, with heavy sigh, filled with both satisfaction and emptiness. Satisfaction from having discovered a whole new world, being taken to places I have never dreamed of visiting. Until now. Emptiness from that feeling you get when you complete a story, so fulfilling and compelling, you wonder what on earth you can read to follow it. I have not felt that since I read Wild Swans by Yung Chang, many years ago.

Thank you Alison McQueen for sharing something of your world, pages rich with colour, flavor, smells, sights and sounds. Truly a read to fulfill all senses, body & soul.
Profile Image for Debra.
46 reviews
May 17, 2015
I enjoyed this book. The story took a little getting into. At times a sad and harrowing read. I was fully engaged in the story by the end. I was interested in the characters and wanted to hear their individual stories from a time and place so different from my own. I could easily picture the places described in the book. I found this story interesting and engaging. I feel like I have taken a real journey with Mary and Serafina and the people who touched their lives along the way. It was interesting to read at the the end of the book about the author's own life experiences and influences ad those of her Mother's.
Profile Image for Alka.
381 reviews28 followers
March 7, 2015
extremely sensitive writing. It manages to convey every character's perspective with such empathy. There isnt a single protagonist, an ensemble of characters, affording a peep into a world which has mostly been hidden, overlooked by succeeding generations. It is about daughters of a British officer and Indian tribal mother, growing up in an India which is fighting for its independence from the likes of their father. There is little respect for his sentimentality in the society. It is poignant. At times, it also raises uneasy feelings about what we are doing to our kids, even now, when there is no overt existential struggle.
Profile Image for Alana.
193 reviews3 followers
October 9, 2012
After a slow start the story moves along well and keeps you interested its topic is still relevant today although the stigma regarding the girls is a far cry from what it was. While I enjoyed the journey the story took me on I was a little disappointed at the ending I felt that a few things were left untied so I have to assume how things played out but that's just me I do like a tidy ending even if its not the one I wanted. Having said that its a good read, enjoyable & kept my interest I would recommend it.
Profile Image for Sue Andrews.
91 reviews
March 18, 2012
Brilliant book about the result of being half Indian, half British. Follows the lives of two girls whose father is a British tea farmer in the 1920's. He takes an Indian mistress and produces two girls. The other British residents view this as something to be swept under the carpet, so the girls are sent to boarding school. This book shows how this effects the two girls and his mistress. I really loved the book and thoroughly recommend it.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 51 reviews

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