The gorgeously colourful cover of The Maid’s Room hides an ugly truth. The rooms most of the 230,000 maids in Singapore can call their own are ‘bomb shelters’: concrete, airless and windowless, where the tumble dryer adds to the already intolerable humidity. In this debut novel rather than laying the indignity and unfairness on with a trowel, Fiona Mitchell uses humour and a light touch. Expats lounge around the pool of their luxury condos getting bored, bitching about each other and having affaires, while the maids look after their children, cook meals, clean their houses and are blamed for everything. For them their bosses are always Ma’am and Sir. They work six or even seven days a week and have very few legal rights.
We see this community through the eyes of three main characters:
Jules the newly-arrived Brit, is desperate to get pregnant and enduring her third round of IVF, after a job (oh irony) as a midwife in the UK.
Dolly works for ex-pats, Amber and Tor bringing up their two boys: Sam (adorable) and Colby (out of control) and uses her attractiveness to make extra money from one of the straying husbands. Another sad truth about how desperate the maids are to supplement their poor wages.
Tala, Dolly’s older sister is the maverick maid, playing the system to maximise her earnings by working as a cleaner for a number of the ex-pats.
All of the domestic workers are Filipina; leaving their families for better-paid jobs in Singapore they send money home so their children can go to school and have a better life. But there’s a blogger at work: the odious ‘Vanda’ blogs about keeping tabs on your maid:
Rule 2 Boyfriends: your maid must not have a boyfriend. After all, if she gets pregnant, she’ll be deported and you could be forced to pay her airfare home.
And Tala is angry. She’s determined to tell the truth about what life is really like for a domestic worker so sets up a rival blog, ‘Maidhacker’ and reveals all. It would have been easy to make Jules, as the new-arrival, the rescuing hero of the novel, but it’s Tala: middle-aged, worn-out, a shoulder for the other workers to cry on, who is the true hero. She’s also funny, feisty and very sweaty. A memorable character. To add more layers to lives that are already fraught with intolerable work and disgust, Tala’s boss and landlady, Mrs Heng, is an almost Dickensian grotesque, filing the rough skin off her feet and piling it on the arm of a chair. Male characters in the novel are more sketchily drawn – feckless, absent or lecherous. It’s the women who make this story.
The world of The Maid’s Room is completely contemporary – blogging, Instagram, laptops mobiles and Skype. It’s simply told, in a way that will give it general appeal, and has an energy that hooks you into the story. This novel is an eye-opener to the desperate lives of ‘maids’, and to the hypocrisy of ex-pats in Singapore. With women’s health and reproductive rights under threat and the plight of domestic workers here in the UK and across the world in the news, the story is highly topical.