25 November, 2009

East of the Sun, by Julia Gregson. Book review

Edition reviewed: Touchstone 2008, ISBN 978-1-4391-0112-4. 587 pages. Review copy kindly provided by publisher.

East of the Sun is set in British India in 1928-1930. All the main characters are fictional.

In 1928, three contrasting young women board the Kaisar-i-Hind steamer, travelling from England to Bombay. Rose, aged 19, is going out to marry her fiancee, an army officer she has met only a few times. Her friend Victoria (Tor), about the same age, is ostensibly going as Rose’s bridesmaid but really with the firm intention of finding a husband in India and never, ever going back to her fussy and restrictive mother. Tor is part of the “Fishing Fleet”, the slightly disparaging contemporary slang term for the young upper-class women who go to India to look for a husband after having failed to land one during the London Season. Viva, aged 25, is theoretically chaperoning Rose and Tor, together with a disturbed teenage boy, Guy Glover, who has been expelled from his boarding school in England and is returning to his parents in India. Viva herself lived in India as a child, and is returning for the first time since her parents’ death to collect a trunk of their belongings and – hopefully – to make a new life for herself there after a disastrous love affair in England. All three women will find that India changes their lives for ever, although not always in the ways they expect.

East of the Sun is essentially three interlocking romantic storylines, one for each of the three female leads. Rose already has a husband lined up; Tor is desperately looking for one; Viva thinks she doesn’t want or need one. Their romantic adventures and misadventures, and the developing bond of friendship between them, form the core of the novel. A rather half-hearted political sub-plot pops up out of almost nowhere and vanishes again without being fully resolved, and there are occasional mentions of Gandhi, the independence movement, riots and demonstrations, but the tremendous political and social forces changing India are essentially a backdrop to the girls and their relationships. If you want to understand the political changes that ended the Raj in India, Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet is among the best I’ve read. If you want to imagine what it might have been like to be an upper-class girl with a restricted education trying to make a life in an exotic country halfway across the world from home, East of the Sun gives you three to choose from.

Rose, a soldier’s daughter marrying a soldier, shows the British military perspective, struggling to keep the lid on random violence along the wild and dangerous North-West Frontier. Tor, staying with the glamorous and malicious socialite Ci Ci Mallinson, shows us the brittle luxury of Bombay high society. Viva, working in a children’s home in a poor suburb of Bombay to earn money after Guy Glover has cheated her out of her chaperone’s salary, shows the perspective of the independent working woman and gives a glimpse into the poverty of the Bombay slums. All three women have their own challenges to overcome. Rose has to find out if she can build a successful relationship with a man she barely knows. Tor, eager and na├»ve, is like a hopeful puppy gambolling after new experiences and opportunities, but her openness leaves her vulnerable to hurt. Viva, the opposite of Tor in many ways, is detached and self-contained, emotionally traumatised by the deaths of her parents and sister when she was a child and on the run from an exploitative love affair. She has to find the courage to confront and come to terms with her past before she can build a future. Their contrasting experiences, the interactions between the three girls and the characters around them, and their developing friendship for each other, form the main strengths of the novel.

One interesting feature is the contrast between the three girls’ hopes and ambitions. Viva and some of the secondary characters, such as Daisy Barker, are trying to make independent lives and to earn their own livings within the limited opportunities open to women. Rose and Tor, by contrast, would not be out of place in Jane Austen’s world; their lives will be shaped entirely by the marriages they will make or fail to make.

East of the Sun is lavish on descriptive detail and rather chattery conversations, especially in the first half of the book while the main characters are on the ship to India. As a result, the book is long - very long – and slow-paced. I often felt that it had taken pages and pages to get nowhere very much. Readers who love detailed descriptions of exotic places and customs will find much to enjoy; others may find the novel too slow and drawn-out. The author says in the question-and-answer interview at the back of the book that she found it frustrating to be unable to include the political turmoil of the time because her three heroines wouldn’t have had much knowledge or understanding of it; no doubt this is true, though it could surely have been solved if desired by introducing another viewpoint character who did.

Curiously, despite its length, the novel skips over some major events in the characters’ lives and some of the plot threads are never resolved. Tor’s whirlwind romance (so unlikely that I wonder if it is based on a real event, truth being stranger than fiction) is disposed of in a page or two with hardly anything to show her feelings. We never see the point of view of the handsome and intelligent young doctor Frank, though I found him an interesting character and would have liked to see more of him. Tor’s story and Viva’s are completed by the end of the book, but Rose is left with a lot of rather unsatisfactory unanswered questions. Guy Glover’s role in the novel is the most unsatisfying. He exhibits symptoms that would now be considered suggestive of schizophrenia (a new concept at the time, according to the novel), and pops in and out of the narrative at intervals to wreck Viva’s plans. His malevolent actions do act as a plot catalyst forcing Viva into important decisions, but his story just stops without being properly resolved, which I found disappointing.

An interesting question-and-answer interview at the back of the book discusses some of the influences and sources for the novel, and a helpful map at the front is invaluable for following the geography. A glossary of Hindi terms might have been handy, but they are almost always clear from the context so its absence is no great problem.

Lavish, detailed and very long romantic story about the developing friendship between three young English women in British India.


Marg said...

I enjoyed this book when I read it, but definitely agree that the Guy Glover storyline was a little muddled. I do love to read about India though so I was happy.

Carla said...

Marg - I'm glad it wasn't just me that was baffled by Guy's storyline. I wondered what I was missing :-)