Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Sandalwood Tree

It's not often I read books on the same subject one right after the other but that's what has happened this time around. I finished Partitions and immediately read The Sandlewood Tree. Both of these novels revolve around the Partition of India in 1947. The Partition is one of the many moments in history steeped in bloodshed and inhumanity whose powerful drama lends itself to fiction. Although the Partition is the backdrop but for Partitions and The Sandalwood Tree they each have a unique voice. Partitions is Indian independence from the Indian viewpoint and covers different levels of society. The Sandalwood Tree is from a more Raj point of view and covers India over two different generations.
In The Sandalewood Tree author, Elle Newmark, tells the story of two loves ninety years apart. The novels starts with Evie and Martin's plan to move to India for Martin's studies. He has won a Fulbright Fellowship to document the end of British rule in India. Evie desperate not to be separated again after their long years apart during the war convinces Martin that she and their young son should accompany him to India.

Evie expects to arrive in a Hollywood-esque India. She imagines India will be colorful, exotic, a fantasy land. The reality is that along with the colorful, exotic, fantasy land there was also great poverty, heat, crowds and chaos. With Martin working and the language barrier Evie is back to being a lonely single parent just like during the war. A chance happening changes all that for Evie. While obsessively cleaning their bungalow she finds a packet of letters. The letters were written in 1857 by two young English women, Adela and Felicity. Allowing herself to become consumed by their correspondence Evie is determined to discover what happened to these two women.

Adela and Felicity left England for India for different reasons and with different mindsets. Most of the same social conventions were in place in the colony as were in England and within the relatively small British communities there were plenty of people there to see that they were adhered to. However they did find a level of freedom and self determination that was unknown to them in Victorian England.

Evie's pursuit of Adela and Felicity's history brings her a new freedom as well. Her investigation takes her out of herself and the safety zone she had created in their new home. She searches anywhere she can find that might have a connection with the colonials and seeks out some of the almost extinct British Raj who might be able to help.

Newmark does an admirable job building up her mysterties and revealing secrets but comes up short on conveying the politics, religious divisions and dangers of the Victorian period in India and during the Partition. There are plenty of pleasant descriptions of temples, marketplaces, clothing, native and colonial homes, food, etc but this is India through a filter. India lite. An entertaining introduction to novels set in India. The most interesting part of The Sandalwood Tree is Newmark's juxtaposition of the expectations of three women a century apart.

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