The Sandalwood Tree – Elle Newmark

Evie and Martin through Martins job recording the experiences of Partition move to India from Chicago, America. A cultural move and in some ways shock for all concerned as they both seem to be trying to move from on the past.  They are in the centre of where the future is happening in India, as Partition is brought forward.

Martin recovering from the Second World War and the atrocities he saw, haunts both him and Evie for most of the book until Evie finally finds out what happened and they slowly start to build their lives again but not without own potential personal tragedy first.  Martin does not want Evie and their son, Billy to experience life in India too much; he wants to cocoon them from everything. Evie has other ideas.

When cleaning in their little bungalow provided for them, Evie stumbles across some letters, some are unreadable but there are enough words on one to piece together a story of something similar to what Evie is feeling at the moment. At this point the book reverts back 100 years or so to the time around of the Indian Munity of 1857. Felicity was born in India and although educated for a greater part in England has returned to find herself a life, but not one expected of her by her contemporaries of the Victorian Period. Felicity wants to be herself, and causes scandal along the way. Her childhood friend who she grew up with Adela left behind in England wants the same, but she has differing feelings to those expected of a woman of her time and when a potential scandal at home needs to be hushed up, Adela finds herself joining Felicity as a member of the ‘fishing fleet’ – women sent to India to find a husband where men outnumbered women 5 to 1.

Evie is drawn to these two lives from the past, as she discovers that they are in their own way trying to fight a partition of love and land when tensions in India grew. These ghosts of the past fulfil Evie and she starts to piece together the past and when it starts to infiltrate the present the two stories are finally combined.

This is an excellent book and if you love the combination of history, and two stories running concurrently but inextricably linked then this is certainly the book for you. The history of India is explained and Elle Newmark really gives a sense of the time and place both in the mid 19th and 20th Century. Whilst being a historical novel, it is essentially a love story for all the characters as well as the love of the country which is being torn apart with people being misplaced.  It has an echo of the troubles that still affect this country some years later and is as relevant today as then.

Newmark has certainly researched her subject well, including in her notes at the back of the book regarding visiting India. From this firsthand knowledge she brings to each page, the colour and vibrancy of the place despite conflict. The tastes and the smells of the land, the seasons and the weather and the relief felt when the rains started and I was the locals who worshipped the ground when the rain fell. I could feel how uncomfortable the humidity and heat which essentially held the humidity and heat of the storyline throughout the book.

There is so much more that this book says and covers, the only way you can find out more is to actually go and read the book.

I could have gone on quite a bit about this book because there is so much to mention;

  • British rule and the lifestyle that sprang up in the time of The Raj. Social places, movements and expectations where  little part of Britain was transplanted in India, retaining everything and not becoming involved in any of the local customs, food or people.
  • Victorian Morals and Standards. The relationship that was developing in the ‘Victorian’ part of the story did shock me, not through any prudishness but it was something I was not expecting. In turn that made the story richer and page turning. Once in India, the shock tactics were there in some respect more for the time than for me reading it in the 21st century.
  • The book contained quite a few words which were slightly lost on me and I would have liked a bit of an explanation in some cases. However upon reflection it added to the richness and mystery of the place.
  • If you have read books by Julia Gregson, Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton then this book is for you it draws upon lots of themes which have featured in these novels. I recommend them all and this one.
  • A common recurrent conversation in the book “Death steals everything but our stories.” “Our stories are all we have”. Reflecting on these statements makes me think as a voracious reader some days stories are all I have but also how much I have learnt from so many people when listening to many stories.

Check out the author’s website Elle Newmark. Sadly Elle passed away in July 2011. She has left us two books this one and her first novel The Book of Unholy Mischief (The Chef’s Apprentice in the US) . The book discussion questions make for very interesting reading, and I would be happy to discuss any of these questions with any readers if interested.

I read this book as part of The Transworld Book Group Reading Challenge.