Salma’s Women, Dreaming, translated by Meena Kandasamy, traverses the stories of many women and the dreams they spin within the tragedies of their lives. The focus here is on the women: this novel is intent on exploring its characters. And its outline is immediately captivating: Six Muslim women, interconnected by familial ties and similarly confined lives.

The tyranny of one man, whose extremist interpretations of the Quran dictates the boundaries of their everyday. The cloud of suffering and struggle this unleashes on the women, from within which rise their dreams. Little spots of escape, possibility, potential in the midst of a claustrophobic life. The premise is vivid, tense, and offers the opportunity to explore myriad ideas: patriarchy, fundamentalism, female-female relations, and families. It is in describing the last structure that Salma’s writing glimmers with insight.

As Mehar and Hasan separate, for instance, their children Ashraf and Sajida carry the brunt of being tugged between their parents. Salma writes for us a bitter Ashraf’s innocent question: “You think we’ll never live together again?”; she shows us Sajida’s curiosity about “what other parents in other families spoke about with their children”; and she scripts Mehar’s regrets that her children will never wish to “have stayed a child forever.” These are some of the best moments of Women, Dreaming: cutting, wrenching insight into the (dys)functioning of a family.

But who are these women?

But the heart of the story lies, as the title suggests, in the “Women” and their “Dreaming.” The storytelling too reinforces this core: chapter upon chapter seeks to expound on the directions that these women take, the details of their days, and the tendencies of their minds. Yet for all this, the women – as more than the sum of their life-events – are themselves lost within the novel.

Of Parveen we only know: Her impotent husband sends her away to safeguard his ego; her relationship with her brother, Hasan, is strained; she finds solace in the company of her spinster aunt, Amina; her work for self-help women’s groups offers her a space of her own. Beyond these characteristics, it is difficult to get the measure of Parveen.

When she cries for her brother or feels guilt for forgetting her prayers, we struggle to understand these aspects of Parveen in conjunction with the rest of her personality – particularly because we have seen till then no traces of affection for her brother or any religious inclinations. Ultimately, we see only disparate splinters of Parveen, which refuse to come together as a person with complexity. We are left wondering: what drives Parveen as a person? What is Parveen like?

Similar questions arise for all the characters. Where does Sajida’s coldness towards her mother disappear? Why does Parveen tell Mehar she divorced Hasan too hastily, when she is entirely empathetic to the decision a few chapters ago? What is Asiya’s reasoning for any of her decisions? How do these women – whose lives are all intertwined – feel about each other? Who even are these women?

For a novel that seeks to focus on its characters, Women, Dreaming offers little beyond skeletal structures of them. This is not to ask the novel to perform the impossible task of listing every element of its characters, but to ask it to acquaint us with the characters. Have you ever read a story and been able to gauge how its characters work, the cogs and wheels that make them run? Enough to deduce the ways they will react and respond to imaginary events and incidents outside the ambit of the novel? Stories can allow us to access a character’s interiority – and for a novel that is so character-centric, this is especially crucial.

But even where Women, Dreaming tries to take us into the minds of these women and flesh out their psyches, the writing proves an impediment. Part of the issue seems to be in a miscalculation of the plot. The switches from one perspective to another, for instance, are not always smooth. These sudden swaps – which seem to be directed by no specific principle – can jolt us from the narrative and character we were following, which can be disruptive.

What words can hide

But the lack of character construction really begins at the foundation of writing: at the level of the sentence, the level of the emotion.

Our characters are stuck in a cycle of declarations: phrases like “she was worried”, “she was enraged”, “she felt struck by a deep sadness,” “felt a pang of guilt,” “made her feel an excruciating jealousy” run around the pages without restraint. These emotions are never explored or depicted; rather, they are trapped into the formulation of “woman felt x.” Readers are offered a door that cannot be opened, though not for lack of trying. We receive no access to their feelings, but only an indication of their general shape.

How then can we grasp their sorrows or their dreams, beyond glimpses of shadowy imaginations? This style makes for a stiflingly limited experience – of the emotions felt, of the characters feeling them, and of Women, Dreaming. Not only is it near-impossible to bridge the gulf this opens between reader and character, the frequent repetition of the phrase also creates a distinct sense of stagnation. Turning a page feels like turning a corner into a street that resembles the last; the sense of being trapped – and unable to reach the story – only intensifies.

This is definitely exacerbated by the translation, which makes for a faltering bridge in itself. While the limits of the story and the characters within it are consequences of the Tamil work, the English rendering can make it tough to settle into reading. Occasionally, Kandasamy’s sentences capture meaning well. A favourite of mine is: “Without fully understanding the import of these words, Sajida wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck and wept with her.” Simple, subtle, and cuts to the heart.

But often, the translation choices are jarring and unwieldy. Oddly phrased idioms litter the pages: take “like a dangerous well, her presence spread panic,” which, as evident, takes a few moments, as well as some effort of imagination, to grasp. Though this may be a familiar idiom in Tamil, this particular phrasing does not bring across the weight of it; a different, clearer phrasing would have brought across more of an effect.

This aside, sentences come with cumbersome phrasing: like “Nothing that Nanni said her mother liked.” Doesn’t it throw you off momentarily? The choice of words can also be similarly disruptive. When such choices contribute nothing to our reading of the novel, and instead prove detractive by jolting us from the flow of reading, the translation only serves to add additional distance between reader and novel.

And Women, Dreaming is beset by far too many of these rifts already. This saga of six women, which promises to captivate and capture, instead imprisons the characters within its words and leaves us staring at them from afar. We catch brief glimpses of them in moments of perceptive writing, and gauge what they could be when we try hard to pay attention to the ideas that underpin these characters rather than the characters themselves.

There are only figments of them for us to clutch at, only little more than fragments for us to piece together. Much like dreams even as we dream them, Salma’s women slide out of our grasp even as we read them.

Women, Dreaming

Women, Dreaming, Salma, translated from the Tamil by Meena Kanadasamy, Penguin Books.