Shalimar by Davina Quinlivan

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

I don’t think that who we are can never be absolutely defined, we are people who ebb and flow like the tides. Our character is made up from our successes and failures, our DNA and our sense of belonging in the places we choose to live. That fluidity can be pushed to its limits for those that have had to leave their country of birth to move elsewhere. A detail even more poignant at the moment with the flood of people leaving Ukraine for their own safety.

Davina Quinlivan’s family originate from Burma and her father arrived in the UK at the age of 18 in the mid-1950s. They are not just Burmese though, tracing her family back she finds a rich and diverse cultural heritage from Germany, Ireland, India and China. She considered that her identity was rooted in the place where she was born, London, but the threads linking her to Burma were stronger than she thought.

Her childhood was strongly influenced by her wider family trying to replicate the life they had had back in Burma, cooking the same food and following the same rituals. It gave her memories of a place that she never knew in the same way as they did. This entangled mesh of memory and family is sometimes rooted in reality and often in that liminal zone of the mind, she calls Shalimar. This is her story of that place.

Over time, this colonisation of the body, engendered through DNA, comes to represent a more tender geography and our lineal likeness, as it finds its way to the surface of the present, is a map of the power we hold inside ourselves.

I thought that this was a wonderfully written book. Quinlivan’s prose is just beautiful, it feels sparse and yet it is loaded with feeling and emotion. Whilst it feels like she is deconstructing her past and family history, she isn’t, she is sifting through it and using it to build a new narrative that defines her and her place in this country. She can hear the echoes of her late father’s voice sometimes when her son speaks. He never met his grandfather and it makes her wonder how he knows how to speak that way, but when she listens there are echoes that she can sometimes hear in her own voice. She knows that all of these threads are how she will make a new map of their lives

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  1. Jacob Storey

    It’s a wonderful debut novel from Davina Quinlivan. First I wasn’t sure what to expect. Shalimar is by no means a simple memoir, it embraces so much more, from the mango trees of the Buddhist monks in 1940s where the author’s father played and ate to the oppression of the shan women of Northern Thailand.

    • Paul

      Thanks for the comment, Jacob. She has a wonderful way with words

  2. Liz Dexter

    That sounds fascinating. Is it fictionalised or straight memoir? I was just talking to my cousin the other day about our shared and cherished Spanish heritage.

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