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 historical setting of this book is wonderful. Set in the middle of revolutionary India, the background events really made this book. There is always a feeling of inevitability, combined with both desperate hope and tragic fatalism, in turns that haunts the reader from beginning to end. This aspect of the book is a great instructive element, in that it allows the reader to contemplate many of the tragic, as well as miraculous events that all emerge during a time of civil unrest and political revolution. War, famine, political unrest, religious disputes, caste/class struggles, racial conflict — they all make an appearance in this book. And these are only the broad canvas aspects of the story. These say little of the insight into devastated families, oppression, prostitution, murder, injustice and others that all impact on the more personal levels throughout the story. Massey has done a great job of showing the reader the dangers of the declining British imperialistic years in this highly volatile country.
I was particularly impressed with Massey’s ability to portray the myriad levels of social structure throughout this society, through the eyes of her characters. These divisions exist not only between the British and the English, but also between Indians and Indians, Muslim and Hindu, pacifists and revolutionaries and all the different ideologies that accompany those divisions. In a world where social class has really devolved into only three divisions: rich, poor and middle class — the nuances of this Indian society really opens the door to a vastly different culture that is both accessible and engaging for the reader.
Where Massey had a little bit of trouble in this one was with the characters. The characters evolved in varying degrees — some amazingly larger than life, and others almost not at all. Kamala emerges on the scene and grows from the lowest levels of Indian culture, up to a powerful Memsahib. Her character is multi-dimensional with a great deal of depth. However, her overbearing image of self is a little heavy handed in places. In comparison — Simon Lewes is a complete enigma. He is one of those characters that is what ever the reader turns him into — rather than a presence in his own right. It is almost impossible to get a handle on who or what he is. Most of what the reader learns about him originates from others and not himself. He comes across as emotionally flat and only existing on the periphery of the story, even though he plays a major role. This sharp contrast between the characters is, at times, disorienting. But I came away feeling that all of them were over top, in your face characters that tended to brow beat the reader into paying attention. There was either an overbearing sense of person, or an understated dimension that completely hides the character from any sense of understanding.
Some of the themes are very well developed. The book allows the reader to consider the extent to which people will go, in an attempt to hide those aspects of themselves they don’t wish to be made public. It develops the themes of self discovery, trust, commitment, hate and love in nuanced terms — allowing the reader to bring their own insight and interpretation to these themes, and place the amount of weight on them, in light of their own opinions and understandings that they deem appropriate. But, at the same time — it opens windows into these themes that the reader can slip into, as a means of expanding their own understanding of the significance of these, life impacting issues.
This is a fun read — and one that I couldn’t put down. But there were some areas where it got a little overbearing. But it is still one I would recommend — particularly for those lovers of historical fiction.