Most readers can explain why they did or did not like a book. And while on the surface those reasons may seem a little strange, or even random — those reasons will usually relate directly to the reader’s preferences, interests and general points of reference in their life. This is a book that I really liked and was somewhat indifferent to at the same time. Although, as far as a captivating read — it really worked, with only a few minor weaknesses that detracted to a certain degree. The book was one that was both strong and weak at the same time; it has distinct challenges in the characterizations, while presenting a setting and story that is eloquent and beautiful.
Massey’s rendering of India in a particularly volatile time is amazingly well done. As the Indian people struggle to force the British out of their country, the British struggle to maintain the status quo under the last dying embers of Imperialism. There are several historical figures, such as Gandhi, that make appearances in this book; There is also a great deal of turmoil and discontent that marks every page of this book. Massey has done an excellent job of creating a feel, particularly in a country where everything seems to be standing on the edge of a precipice. She has managed to create the feeling of a world struggling to fight off imperial oppression, while at the same time establish stability in their own destabilized and divided culture. The book challenges not only the right and wrong of British Imperialism — but it also looks at problematic issues such as the vast diversity of Indian religious beliefs, the caste system and social stratification in this nascent government, but ancient country.
One area that Massey struggled with was in her character development. Her characters are both strong and weak — depending on the character. It is as if she focuses so much effort on developing the protagonist that she fails to give the same time and effort to the supporting character lineup. And in a book that really has multiple antagonists — that can be a real drawback that detracts from the story. Sarah is an amazing character, particularly in the insight and understanding we gain into the Indian culture and stratification due to a caste system — as seen through her eyes. Coming from the lowest tier of the social castes — she is forced to move through a series of lives, personifications, opportunities — both lost and gained, and situations, in an attempt to establish herself as a person of significance within the culture. But through the development of her character, the reader can come to appreciate the forced changes that occurred during the social destabilization of a politically compromised country.
The historical context is what I found the most enthralling part of this book. As British influence was in decline and the rapidly changing ideas on world governmental ideologies started to shift — many countries found themselves having to reforge the governments and cultures they had known for centuries. This is particularly true in India because of the many different aspects of historical issues that created challenges to their validity. The Indian system was a carefully balanced culture of varying religious beliefs, strong caste stratification, political unrest and the quiet discomfort so prevalent in the time between the fist and second world wars. As the British control started to decline, the Indian government needed to readapt and reassess the governmental system, as it was known. Massey is particularly adept at encompassing all of these issues in her writing and giving the reader an appreciation for how these elements all came together to produce dramatic political changes.
Some of the subject matter is much more adult in nature. Sarah finds herself spending quite a bit of time as a prostitute — as a means of overcoming her orphan background. (This is, in fact the source of the title.) She has very reduced opportunities due to the lowest caste she belongs to, as well as being orphaned at a very young age. But it is her struggles that add depth and dimension to the whole story. She provides a counterpoint to the background history, in order for the history to become realistic, making it easier for the reader to identify with the context and setting. Sarah is a very sympathetic character, although she spends the entire book in awkward and even precarious situations. At times those situations can stretch the believability of the character — but this doesn’t detract from the story in any way.
Generally, this is a book that was a great summer read. It is both light and easy, as well as intense and engaging in turns. The reader can identify with it, engaging on many different levels. I certainly had my favorite characters — but the one complaint I had about the book is that the other characters were, in many aspects, easily forgotten. It isn’t that they are cardboard cut outs necessarily — but they certainly don’t make a big enough impact to connect with the reader either. For those that enjoy historical fiction — this would be a good opportunity. But it isn’t the powerhouse of some of the historical fiction books I have read.