Well-crafted characters add to the heartfelt drama in Now You See Us, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s alluring literary mystery that’s a gem for fans of Nita Prose’s The Maid and the novels of Alexander McCall Smith.
Reserved Corazon (Cora), headstrong Donita and altruistic Angel are Filipina domestic workers and friends living in Singapore. They support one another through their group text message thread, where they share stories of their treatment by their affluent employers, from Cora’s discomfort around her employer’s attempts at camaraderie, to Donita’s frustration with the controlling Mrs. Fann, who punishes her determined young maid at every opportunity.
One night, when Donita is sneaking home from a rendezvous with her boyfriend, she sees her friend, Flordeliza, getting into a taxi. The next day, Flordeliza is accused of murdering her employer. Donita enlists the help of Cora and Angel to prove Flordeliza’s innocence, though getting close to the crime risks unleashing secrets that would destroy them all.
Jaswal’s scathing indictment of the exploitation of immigrant labor unfolds against a tantalizing backdrop, revealing the rich culture of Singapore while shedding light on systems of oppression and entitlement. She explores the class disparities between the maids and their gossiping employers, as well as the race- and ethnicity-based social structures among the domestic workers; for example, a maid from the Philippines will receive a higher wage than one from Myanmar. “Foreigners made the mistake of assuming that all house help would get along, but there were hierarchies and histories,” Jaswal writes.
While the sleuthing maids make for an engaging plot, the nuances of Jaswal’s characters and their relationships are even more complex and intriguing. In simple yet evocative ways, she peels back the layers of each woman, revealing how their choices are restricted by their past predicaments and current circumstances.