“Death steals everything but our stories.”
As I said on Sunday and again yesterday, I’m reading The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark as part of my Transworld Book Group Challenge:
I’m part of the Transworld Book Group!
It’s the story of Evie Mitchell, who is in India with her husband in 1947. Martin is documenting history in action during the Partition on a Fulbright scholarship; Evie keeps herself making their little bungalow spotless and teaching English to a few local children. One day, she finds a concealed bundle of letters hidden away in the wall of the bungalow. While she can’t interpret very much of them, the reader is given access to a second storyline – the tale of two girls raised as sisters. Felicity leaves Adela in England and makes her way back to India where she was born (and where we know she will leave the letters).
I adored this. It seemed to be just the right mix of exotic lands, adventure, mystery and family life/romance/interpersonal conflict to tick all my boxes. (Other recent successes in this vein – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Bel Canto) And the language! A brief selection of quotes for you:
On the discovery and investigation of some ancient letters: “The letters were personal, and trying to fill in the blanks felt like peering into these people’s lives uninvited. I struggled with a brief pang of guilt before reminding myself that the letters were dated 1854 and the people concerned were long past caring.”
On marriage: “I remembered when we had shared joy as easily as breathing” “That was the beginning of us being smashed and remade with something of the other in each of us” “I’d lost my best friend and I missed him like fire.”
On Catholicism: “It occurred to them that my Catholicism might seem as arcane to them as their Judaism did to me. For me, the pageant of Byzantine robes and chanting in a dead language, the drama of tortured martyrs, virgin birth and crucifixion had been worn thin and made bland by repetition.”
And one of my favourite little comic moments (for reference – Evie has only just discovered that Habib speaks English):“‘Oh, Mr Mitchell doesn’t care for eggplant.’ ‘Of course not, Madam. Eggplant is a useless vegetable. A mistake I am making with this vegetable. I will take back. The merchant should not even be selling such useless vegetables, isn’t it?’ ‘But last night you said eggplant was the king of vegetables.’ Habib regarded me with pity for not understanding something so simple. ‘Madam,’ he said, ‘for you I am working, not for the eggplant. What good would it be doing me to be disagreeing with you and agreeing with the eggplant?'”
The dual storyline worked very well here (of course the strands are united at the end, but not as I thought they would be), much as in Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine. I loved the Victorian characters, although my loyalties flickered back and forth between the two Victorian girls. Newmark has clearly done her research carefully and it shows. In the 1947 thread, I wasn’t much of a fan of the husband, but Evie was wonderful – impulsively adventurous, a sweet and loving mother, a young wife struggling in a marriage that is no longer the one she entered, determined to see India and experience it properly, unlike the colonial wives at the Club, with their trifle and cricket matches and G&Ts.
Evie could be slow sometimes too (annoying, in one who was supposed to be so smart). The conflict is well built and perpetrated, and the scenes with Evie and her son are sweet, but I was a bit disappointed in the resolution to the conflict – it seemed so flat suddenly.
But occasional ditzy moments from Evie and Martin’s sullenness were the only things tempering my very positive feelings about this charming cross-temporal and continental adventure.
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