13 February 2011

The Sandalwood Tree; Elle Newmark

The Sandalwood Tree: A NovelThe Sandalwood Tree: A Novel by Elle Newmark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this, I kept thinking it could have been named Fried Green Chilis at the Hill Station Cafe because of the overwhelming similarities to Fannie Flagg's novel, but luckily it's also more than just that. Yes, there's an unconventional female couple and yes, there's a marriage in trouble, but the interweaving of those two stories with the Sepoy Rebellion and Partition elevate it beyond a simple Indian-flavored version.

The story of Adela and Felicity is the one I wished we'd heard more of, mostly because the world of Raj India is one that interests me (and the differences between that world and Victorian England could have been played up more; I'd never heard of the Fishing Fleet before!). Their lives both in England and India were supposedly so scandalous, yet to our modern eyes they appear normal. The marriage of Evie and Martin is also different for their time - interfaith marriages weren't common in the 1930s.

Martin's Fullbright comes at an interesting time in India's history, Partition. The violence doesn't come to Simla and Masoorla, but there are still religious tensions, not to mention caste tensions. The personal demons tormenting him since the War haven't left, nearly destroying his marriage to Evie. Of course, he goes native to some extent, but by the end, he's realized that "all they have are their stories" and he returns to Western culture and Evie, Billy and vows to try to move past them.

Predictable? To some extent yes. Also, some of the phrasing seems too modern for a book set in either 1860s or 1940s India. Yet as historical fiction goes, this is a good entree into Indian history.

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