I’ve been watching Fiona Mitchell’s progression from journalist to novelist with interest and was delighted when she announced that she had landed a book deal with Hodder to publish The Maid’s Room.
Mitchell has always written with empathy and insight, two skills that are evident in this novel about the plight of Philippino maids in Singapore. The story begins powerfully, with a description of the standard concrete room that passes for maid’s accommodation. A small airless space with a mattress on the floor and laundry equipment lining the walls.
Jules and David are a married couple who’ve recently moved to Singapore and they’re invited to a party hosted by a brittle mother of two called Amber. Mitchell captures the soulless nature of the experience for Jules by vividly describing the hard contours of the environment and people she meets. There’s a distinct lack of warmth that separates Jules from everyone else, enabling her to see the maid that discretely moves about the room in a way that the other women actively avoid doing.
Dolly is Amber’s maid and she has a secret that could end in her deportation, one that is going to cost her both physically and mentally. Her motivation to survive under such soul sucking conditions is driven by the need to earn money to secure the future of her young daughter back home in the Philippines. She’s a mother cut off from her own child due to the strict rules where a maid’s status in the the employer’s home is lower than that of the family pet.
This fact does not stop Dolly from doing the best she can to care for Amber’s children, who’ve only known neglect from their own mother because Amber is more concerned with maintaining the illusion of the perfect life with the perfect family, despite the fact that one of her children is obviously struggling and known as The Feral Child.
Meanwhile, an online a blogger known as Vanda systematically suppresses the maids through a series of vindictive posts on her blog. She regularly targets specific maids for misdemeanours, some real, some imagined and always inflated, often leading to a maid’s reputation being destroyed, leaving them facing unemployment, destitution and/or deportation.
Until the day Dolly’s sister, Tala, who is also a maid working for a nightmare employer, decides she’s had enough and starts her own blog to counteract Vanda’s, where she lays out the reality of life for maids in Singapore. Her quick wit and talent for dissecting truth from fiction soon garners a large audience.
Everyone within the novel is imprisoned in some way, the maids by the escalating, extreme and sometimes abusive expectations of the people who hire them, and those who hire them by expectations of those within their set to keep up appearances.
Mitchell taps into a powder keg of repressed emotions on all levels in this story. Every now and then there is a dynamite leak that’s just waiting for the right spark to make everything explode. When it does the fallout is intense, facades fall away and everyone is forced to face reality. Some respond with rage and others let go of what they have known to forge stronger relationships and friendships based on acceptance and truth.
I found the story of Dolly, Tala and the people they worked for moving on many levels. Mitchell’s strength is in noting that nothing is quite as black and white as it appears. She explores the grey areas with a sense of balance and empathy, with the intention of raising awareness not only of how these maid’s survive but how all parties concerned could thrive if they chose to view each other differently.
I bought my copy of The Maid’s Room from Waterstones.
Follow the author on Twitter: @FionaMitchell
Published by Hodder.