When you finish reading the final paragraph of a novel, close the book and just sit there pondering on all the things that you've just been reading about, you know it's a literary masterpiece. Elle Newmark's The Sandalwood Tree is one such book.
Set in colonial India in the 1940's, the novel follows the life of American couple Evie and Martin and their 5-year-old son Billy. The couple's marriage is in crisis as Martin struggles to come to terms with the horrors he witnessed when serving in World War II. Attempting to silence his inner demons with alcohol and by throwing himself into his work as a historian chronicling the tensions and unrest during The Partition, he only manages to distance himself even more from those he loves.
Unaware of the real-life nightmares haunting her husband and loath to spend time with the chauvinistic, snobby ex pats at The Club, Evie escapes her solitude by becoming passionately interested in the tale of two equally headstrong British women who lived in her house in the 1850's. As she tracks down information about the women, their lives, loves and heartaches, through church records, gravestones and their personal journals, poems and letters secreted around the house, she uncovers tales of passion, scandal and a multicultural Victorian romance against all odds.
Despite living almost a century apart, there are many parallels between the women's stories, both personally and politically, and the ultimate message seems to be that love conquers all, however many difficulties need to be overcome along the way. The portrayal of the horrors of the Indian conflicyt as well as the concentration camp that Martin encountered offset any romantic sentimentality, leaving an extremely powerful, thought-provoking novel.
In the reader's notes at the end of the novel, I was surprised to see the book classed as historic fiction as it is not a genre I would have attributed to it. I did indeed learn an awful lot about the life of the Anglo-Indians, the Indian War of Independence, Partition (when India was divided up by British rule and millions of people were forced to uproot and move home to be in the correct religious area) and elements of Indian culture, such as child slavery and the Suttee widows. But the book transcends the label of historical fiction, becoming so much more.
The atmosphere frequently reminded me of A Passage To India, in its almost lyrical descriptions of India, the tensions between the different races and basic human nature that leads people to try to overcome society's boundaries, with often far-reaching consequences.
I became so engrossed in the vivid, highly evocative descriptions of India that, as I closed the book, I felt like I needed to go and take a shower to wash away the red, gritty dust and smells of sun-baked dung that I had somehow picked up just by reading ! This will definitely be an award-winner.
star rating : 5/5
RRP : £7.99 (but only £5.32 on amazon)
Paperback: 512 pages
Publisher: Black Swan (4 Aug 2011)
This was the first book that I read for the Transworld Book Group Reading Challenge (that I told you about here) so if you've read the same book, please feel free to leave a link to your review in the comments box so that we can compare notes.
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