Monday 14 January 2013

East of the Sun by Julia Gregson

Ages and ages ago I was given an advance copy of Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson which has just been chosen as one of Richard & Judy's Book Club reads.  Somehow I got it into my head that Jasmine Nights was the sequel to East of the Sun and my mild case of OCD means that I could never ever possibly read a sequel before I read its prequel.  Which sent me to the book story.  I know, lame excuse but one has to do what one has to do.

East of the Sun tells the story of a select few from the fishing fleets: the groups of young women who would leave their families in search of marriage to a suitable officer in the British Military during the last gasp of the British Raj.

The novel centres on 3 women in their 20s each at different stages of their quest:  Rose has become engaged to a military officer whilst he was on a brief period of leave.  She hardly knows him and knows even less about the nature of marriage.  Victoria has her heads in the clouds and is taken advantage of by every Tom, Dick and Harry (excuse the pun).  She has barely a penny to her name and her chaperon is wholly unsuitable for helping her find her way.  Finally, Viva, who has misrepresented her qualifications, experience, and motivation as a chaperon.  And although Viva's last intention is to find a husband, she does yearn for the excitement and independence that she imagines life in India as a single woman in the 1920s might bring her.  That wouldn't have been my destination of choice in those days but to each their own.

Thrown in for good measure are innumerable eccentric and exotic characters which is exactly how I imagine the British expatriates behaved during this time.  Perhaps I read too many books.  One of the most troubling characters in the book is Guy Carver who is clearly afflicted with what would today be diagnosed as either bipolar or schizophrenia, both serious mental health illnesses which have many different and effective methods of treatments today.  However, in India in the 1920s it is fair to say, he was not treated very sympathetically although Gregson barely touches on this area.  She could have developed him as a character much more effectively.  I think this would have been a very different book had she done so.

Also, the quest for Viva's trunk is somewhat disappointing.  It takes Viva ages to go on the search and when she does go the result is more than a mild let down.  I suppose that's the point.  Viva had these unrealistic expectations of all of her questions being answered by the contents only to find that mold and decay had eaten up any and everything that was there.  And, in fact, nothing there would have brought her peace anyway.  It was a clever device to keep the plot moving but was ultimately disappointing.

This is the first book that I've read about this time period although several others are now on my To-Read list and after reading this they have made it to the top of the pile.  I gave this book a 4 out of 5 stars.  I think most of you would really enjoy this.

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