Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Wot I'm reading: more tales from the Raj

Umi Sinha: BELONGING


Umi Sinha lives not far from me on the South coast, although we have never met. Her debut novel is a 320-page saga of three generations of English colonials from the 1850s to the 1920s. I was frequently reminded of The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions, those two mighty epics of Empire. 

The story begins with an act of awful violence and then diverges into three interlocking segments, two before and one after the tragedy, showing how it came about and what are the consequences. The author offers (echoes of Bram Stoker!) a mixture of confession, letters and journals, with three narrators: Henry, the lovelorn civil servant at the centre of the tragedy; Cecily, his mother who came to India 60 years earlier to make her own unhappy marriage; and Lila, Henry's daughter, who is sent to England to live with her great-aunt and falls in love with an expatriate Pathan.

The book gets off to a slow start as Cecily and Henry describe their journeys to new lives in India and Lila settles sullenly into Sussex life with her grandmother's ill-tempered sister. This gives the reader time to get to know - and form an affection for - these three diverse characters. The pace quickens when Cecily and her family are caught up in the Mutiny of 1857 and the First World War casts a shadow over Lila and the boy she loves; Henry's life takes a dramatic turn with his first appointment as a magistrate and his fateful courtship of the beautiful but tormented Rebecca (a name that inevitably brings echoes of another woman with mental and marital 'issues').

Umi Sinha is a gifted writer. She evokes vividly India's wild beauty, its savage climate, the many injustices of colonial life, and she's equally sharp at describing the gentleness (and the suffocating genteelness) of Edwardian Sussex. Belonging is a notable addition to the chronicles of the Raj, that era which is simultaneously the zenith and the nadir of Britain's imperial history.

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