Perhaps it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Perhaps it’s true that you only know what you truly love when you no longer have it. But I wouldn’t have known any of this if I hadn’t left it all behind to discover where my home truly was…
Growing up in British Guiana in the 1950s, Sharon Maas has everything a shy child with a vivid imagination could wish for. She spends her days studying bugs in the backyard, eating fresh mangos straight from the tree and tucked up on her granny’s lap losing herself in books.
But with her father campaigning for the country’s independence and her mother away for work, there’s a void in Sharon’s heart, and she craves rules and structure. The books she devours give her a glimpse of life in a faraway country: England. And although none of the characters in these books look like her, her insatiable curiosity leads Sharon to beg to be sent to boarding school.
Life at a conservative, Christian school is quite different from Sharon’s liberal, atheist upbringing. Girls march silently and single file along corridors and earn badges for deportment. There are twice-daily hymns, grace before and after meals and mandatory bedside prayers. And, all the girls are posh and white, while Sharon is the only one with dark skin. Will she ever fulfil her dream of horseback riding over green hills and going on adventures like her literary heroes? And has she truly found what she was looking for in this chilly corner of the world, thousands of miles away from home?
You will be swept off your feet by the unputdownable story of Sharon Maas’s extraordinary childhood in British Guiana and England, a beautiful and inspiring coming-of-age tale of self-discovery, determination and chasing your dreams.
Disclaimer: Although I received a copy of this book from the publisher, the opinions below are my own.
Last year I was introduced to Sharon Maas’ writing when I was offered a copy of her novel Those I Have Lost to read and review. It was a breathtaking read, and easy for me to award it a full five stars. Earlier this year, I was offered a copy of her new memoir, The Girl from Lamaha Street. Since I was temporarily living in England at the time, the publisher was able to send me a physical copy. At the time, I presumed I’d be reading what it says on the tin, about someone very different from me.
I was wrong.
I was not even a quarter of the way through when I realized I identified with some aspects of Sharon’s life. Yes, we have differences: our skin color is the obvious one, and where we were born is another. I was raised a white girl in the home country of the former British Empire; she as a subject of that Empire in a faraway territory wanting independence from it. But I first noticed the common ground when she quoted her aunt, who would often say, “I want, never gets.” This was something I’d often hear in my childhood from my grandmother, and it had a huge impact on me. Secondly, we loved the same books when we were growing up. Both of us had the Malory Towers books, which influenced Sharon’s wanting to attend boarding school. I was also struck by the complicated relationship she had with her mother. How I also longed for a “normal” mother. I only wish the relationship with my mother ended as well as the one Sharon eventually had with her mother. There’s one more connection Sharon and I have, but more on that later.
I found the sections on race interesting. Sharon detailed how her family members came to have different skin tones. It seemed to me that while those who intermarried didn’t seem to care about skin color, their relatives did and there’s an example of one family disowning a daughter for marrying someone darker than her. Because those in charge in British Guiana (BG) tended to be white, there was a perceived notion that the lighter skinned you were (and still are) the better your status. As a child, Sharon was taught that she was just as good as any white person, but there’s a difference between knowing it on an intellectual basis and feeling it emotionally. There are details in the book of two occasions when she experienced racism in Europe, but Sharon acknowledged she probably didn’t experience as much racism as other people with her skin color.
The highlight for me, however, was the section of her time at Harrogate Ladies College (HLC). Going into the book, I had no idea Sharon’s boarding school was one in the town in England where I was raised. Yes, I knew about HLC, and could recognize the uniform, but I went to a regular state school. Harrogate has long had a reputation for being “posh,” but Sharon experienced more of that aspect of Harrogate life than I ever could. Most of the writing in this section is about events at the school, but occasionally I came across familiar streets and buildings. For me, this book isn’t only about “the girl from Lamaha Street” in Georgetown, BG, but also about a part of Harrogate’s history. The Oakdale building, where Sharon spent most her time at HLC, no longer exists. I don’t know when it was demolished, but I have no memory of knowing about it. I believe this is a must read for anyone connected to or interested in the school.
Despite the profession of Sharon’s father, this is not a political memoir. It ends in 1964, prior to BG becoming the independent country of Guyana. Descriptions of life under British rule are woven into the narrative, but only in relation to Sharon’s life. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to know how life for this teenager changed when the country became independent in 1966. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to reading her next novel, which is about one of the darker events in the young country: Jonestown. A Home for the Lost is scheduled for release at the end of June 2022.
Publisher: Thread Books (an imprint of Bookouture, which is a division of Hachette)
Publication Date: 07 April 2022
Sharon Maas was born into a prominent political family in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1951. She was educated in England, Guyana, and, later, Germany. After leaving school, she worked as a trainee reporter with the Guyana Graphic in Georgetown and later wrote feature articles for the Sunday Chronicle as a staff journalist. In 1971 she set off on a year-long backpacking trip around South America, followed by an overland trek to South India, where she spent two years in an ashram.
Her first novel, Of Marriageable Age, is set in Guyana and India and was published by HarperCollins in 1999. Several more novels followed, two published by HarperCollins. She moved to the digital publisher Bookouture in 2013 and now has twelve novels under her belt.
Thank you for this lovely review! I have good memories of Harrogate, and will be returning there next month for the literary festival for crime writers.