Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark — 368 pgs

The Sandalwood Tree: A NovelMartin is a scholar who’s been sent to India to document the effect of the Partition that’s taking place in 1947 India. When his wife Evie decides she wants to tag along and bring their young son Billy, Martin is initially reluctant. But Evie persists and eventually wins out. Arriving and living those first few months in India is an idyllic adventure for Evie and Billy, but Martin is having trouble both in his marriage and in India itself. It seems that Martin is hiding some secrets about his time as an allied soldier in WWII, and these stresses are pushing him further and further from his wife and child. Evie is at a loss to explain what’s going on with her husband, and when she discovers a cache of ancient letters behind a brick in her kitchen wall, she uses the drama unfolding from her discovery as a way to distance herself from her ever-increasing problems with Martin. The letters Evie discovers are correspondence and journals dating back to 1857, and tell the story of two very unconventional Victorian ladies named Felicity and Adela who come to India to escape the threat of having marriages foisted upon them. As Evie hunts down clues to the women’s past, she uncovers a strange story of love and loyalty amid a backdrop of political tension that exposes them to the dangerous political rifts of India during the height of the Raj. Meanwhile, the tension is building around Evie and her family as well, as Ghandi’s plan for his people begins to cause friction and violence that‘s impossible to ignore. As each of these stories winds itself around the other, the tropical lushness of India comes alive, providing a stunning backdrop to two stories of troubled love, heightened cultural difficulties, and devastating and far reaching drama.

I absolutely love stories that take place in India. And while this story was more about British citizens living in India, I felt right at home and perfectly ensconced in this exquisitely articulated tale. I mentioned to my husband that slipping between these pages was like slipping into a warm bath, because the story felt so delicious and well written. Newmark has really done her homework on the all the sticky aspects of the British occupation of India, and all the eventualities that it entailed. The India portrayed here was something that was to be admired and reveled over, due to the level of detail and the lengths that Newmark went to in order to get every last sight and sound of the country into the framework of her story.

The half of the story that focused on Evie’s time in India was a little less involving than the historical story of Felicity and Adela, but there was a lot in it to admire too. Evie was very different than the other memsahibs in India at the time, and she definitely marched to the beat of her own drummer. While most of the other English women treated their Indian counterparts with disdain and had no trouble subjugating them, Evie was more magnanimous and offered the native people her friendship and insights. This didn’t earn her an esteemed place in the other memsahib’s circles, but she hardly cared. A lot of Evie’s mental energy was spent pondering the problems she had with Martin, who was secretive and alienating. Martin worked so hard at assimilating himself into the Indian culture that in some ways he disappeared and became only a shell of his former self. This was a big problem, because Evie felt he was putting himself and the family in danger, and in addition he was shutting her out. When Evie discovers the hidden letters, she’s ripe for the intrigue they provide and sets about desperately trying to learn more. This leads her into some dangerous situations with her young son in a time and place that is tension ridden and at times dangerous.

The other half of this story is mostly written in an epistolary from, and traces backward the thoughts and letters of the two Englishwomen of the past. The two have been friends since childhood, though Felicity was born in India to a very wealthy military family and sent to England for her formal education, while Adela grew up in England. When the two decide to join the “fishing fleet” (a group of English women traveling to India to “fish” for husbands) they both know they don’t wish to marry and decide to take their chances as spinsters in the mountain ranges of India. This life is idyllic and wonderful for a time, but eventually, complications begin to creep in and destroy the life they’ve tried to build together. From the very first, there are problems with expectations and loyalty, and themes of going native among the Indians and ethnic prejudices are explored fully and rather deeply. I relished the unusual story of Felicity and Adela, and found that these sections crept into my consciousness and flowered into some very pervasive thoughts about duty, sacrifice, and unconditional love.

What I most loved about this book was the way Newmark creates a smorgasbord for the senses in her loving descriptions of India. Food, clothing, native foliage, and the land and people are artfully rendered in a way that fully encompasses the story and gives it breathing and pulsing life. There were so many lovely and thought provoking descriptions to wash over the reader, and in this way, the India of this tale unfolded itself and remained almost as a character on itself. I also really enjoyed the way Newmark wasn’t afraid to imbue her story with so many dramatic arches, which were expertly crafted and handled with both ferocity and skin-tingling tension. It’s rare for dual narratives to have equal amounts of well coached suspense, but I can honestly say that in this story, there was a great pull into the dramatic elements of both halves of the story. Though I had inklings of where these tales would end up, the journey was colorful and enticing and kept me avidly reading to find out how the author would arrive at her destination points.

There was a lot here to love, and this book wins a place on the favorites shelf not only for its prowess in being descriptive about a place I love, but also for creating characters and situations that were both believable and diverting. If you’re a reader who loves the India of the past and who might like to explore the politics of the Raj in India in a way that also melds a fabulous set of stories around that information, I would highly recommend this book to you. It was a veritable feast for the senses and a wonderful read all around. Highly recommended!


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

24 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Hmmm, why am I having flashbacks to a post on Jenny's Books?!!! :--)

I love stories set in India too and then I go on these crazed Indian spice binges!

Marg said...

I have this on my TBR pile to get to soon. I read her earlier book and liked it but didn't love it.

I was saddened to learn that Elle Newmark died earlier this year and so there will be no more books from her.

Zibilee said...

Marg,

Oh no! I didn't know that she died! That is very sad, and makes me want to read her other book quickly. She is a really potent author, I think.

Jenny said...

I actually don't know anything about the British occupation of India. This sounds like a wonderful book!

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

You treat this book with love. I'll look out for this one any time I visit the bookshop.

Michelle (my books. my life.) said...

I am definitely going to have to get this one. I love books set in India and I love stories told in letters so the story within the story appeals to me. And I LOVE your warm bath analogy.

Aths said...

I have heard a lot about this book and it is on my wishlist. I'm glad to see that you recommend it as well and I can't wait to read it! Your review was wonderful, and I never knew that part of the story was in epistolary form!

TheBookGirl said...

Oh yes, I loved this one two. I was also struck by how both parts of the narrative were strong; usually when books are constructed this way, one half inevitably suffers by comparison.

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

Okay, I need to read this one now. I love books that take place in India. I'm not sure why, but India and China are my favorite settings. I think it has something to do with the cultural aspects. Great review!

Suko said...

Your review is wonderful (of course!), and the book seems to be imbued with descriptions that would thrill the senses of this reader. The title and just about everything else you've disclosed here appeal to me, Zibilee.

bermudaonion said...

I loved Newmark's first book and am really looking forward to this one. It sounds like she's written another winner.

nomadreader said...

You've sold me! I know a few people have mentioned this one as a contender for the Indie Lit Awards, so I'll have to check it out. Thanks!

Trisha said...

India is always such a "real" setting. What I mean by that is it is a setting which the author chooses to accentuate; it is not merely a backdrop for the story. Heavy descriptions and atmosphere are common in the books I've read which are set in India. It's one of the reasons I like them so much!

Jenny said...

I didn't know she had died either! That's a shame. I haven't read this and I'm already sad that there won't be more of the same.

Amy said...

Glad to hear you liked this so much! Sounds really involved and interesting. Great review.

irisonbooks said...

I just finished this yesterday! I loved it and I know I will be giving copies of this as gifts to all my family members when/if it is translated to Dutch.

Bailey (The Window Seat Reader) said...

I'm unfamiliar with this author, but I've seen several reviews of this book. I just love the cover. Your review really has me interested in the Indian setting and the historical aspects of this novel. I'll have to find a copy soon!

Erin said...

I really love books set in India, too! This one, for some reason, I didn't love as much, though I liked experiencing the history on which it was based. I agree, too, that Newmark did a wonderful job with her setting. I guess I somehow didn't connect with the characters. I'm happy you loved it so much, though! I have Newmark's The Book of Unholy Mischief and have pondered picking it up a couple of times lately.

Kaye said...

This was such a wonderful read! Glad you enjoyed it so much. Your review is fantastic!

I didn't realize Newmark died this year either. What a tragic loss to the book world.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

OK now I for sure want to read this one!

Darlene said...

Great review Heather! I really enjoyed this book as well. Her first book was fantastic too. I can't wait till her next one comes out.

Aarti said...

Ooh, this sounds fabulous, and I can completely understand why Jenny wants to read it so much after this review. I just saw a non-fiction book on women of the Raj (Victorian English women, I mean) that you might like to read to get more depth into that era, too.

Max Weismann said...

We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

http://www.thegreatideas.org/HowToReadABook.htm

ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

Thank you,

Max Weismann

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Elle's descriptions are fantastic. I loved her way with words in The Book of Unholy Mischief,. I really want to read this one too.
2 Kids and Tired Books

Post a Comment

 
Blogger Template by Delicious Design Studio