Monday 15 August 2011

Review: - The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

The Sandalwood Tree is the first of my four books that I’m reading for the Transworld Book Group Challenge. Probably because of this, at least in part, I've been seeing a lot of reviews of it lately, so I hope this one will add to an already large barrage of people extolling the virtues of this book, and convince you to read it!

The focal topic of the novel is India under British rule, and it covers the stories of three British women living in India almost 100 years apart. Evie Mitchell goes to India with her husband, Martin, who is studying for a PhD in 1947, just as the British are preparing to leave India for good. She hopes that travelling with her husband will somehow fix their marriage which has been demolished by the psychological after effects of the Second World War.  Behind a brick in her kitchen wall, she discovers the letters of two Victorian women, Felicity and Adela, and becomes fascinated by their story.
The novel parallels both British and Indian society in 1857 and in 1947. The essential message I took away from it was that in 100 years, the British in India (and in this I stress I don’t mean either the British or Indian people, but the beaurocracy) hadn’t changed or evolved at all. Both stories just reeked of colonialism and the British obsession with the Empire. Although Evie and Martin are Americans, I often forgot this and was surprised when Evie was so judgemental of the British women at the club, who really reminded me of the women in Kipling’s The Man Who would Be King, which I struggled through earlier this year.  Throughout the novel Evie struggles to come to terms with India; with the prejudice that her son is learning through the violent incidents which take place, including a couple of really quite disturbing incidents, with the attitudes of the British women and the way that racism is inherent to the culture of the British in India, and with her own lack of freedom, both in society and within her marriage. 
There was so much going on in The Sandalwood Tree, and I absolutely loved how fast paced and full of energy it was. Elle Newmark’s writing was good – not as spectacular as Steinbeck’s, which may have counted slightly against it as I finished East of Eden just before starting this novel – but very readable. She tells an engaging story, and I really liked the character of Evie. I know that many people don’t mind if a central character is not well drawn as long as the writer can really write the scenery or the action or whatever, but for me a book is always about 50% less enjoyable if I don’t believe in the central character. It’s not that I have to like them – I’m honestly not bothered if I spend an entire book wishing a character were real so I could punch them in the face – just as long as they make me feel something.
With my rampaging passion for reading about the history of women and their independence, this book was an absolute gift. In the 19th century, Felicity Chadwick is a complete oddity – a woman who doesn’t want to get married, and just wants to be left to live her life alone, the way that she wants to live it, in India, the country she loves. The Chadwick family have worked for the East India Company for generations, and so there are certain accepted norms. Because of this as a young child Felicity is sent from India to Britain to live with a host family, and be educated there. Mr & Mrs Winfield have a daughter the same age as Felicity, and soon the girls become very close friends. As a young woman Felicity returns to India, and a year later, after a social scandal, Adela joins her there.
I really enjoyed the way that Newmark tells their story through a mixture of letters and diary entries found by Evie and chapters told from Adela’s point of view – it’s a brilliant way to entangle the stories. As Evie is going through the motions of her day to day life, wondering if her marriage can survive – wondering if she can survive living with a man who roams around the country dressed as a native, while forbidding her from going farther than the (very) local village as it is ‘too dangerous’, and trying to shelter her young son from some of the atrocities which are taking place, she is learning about the atrocities suffered by women over a century before.
The sense of atmosphere was brilliant by virtue of its not being created by laboured descriptive passages, but by amalgamation of local Indian phrases into the dialogue, and the way that the characters go about their day to day lives using things which are quintessentially Indian rather than British.
Evie’s husband Martin is suffering from post –war trauma, which in totally British fashion he is trying to deal with by not talking about it and trying to ignore it. While doing this, he is dressing in an increasingly Indian fashion, causing his family and friends to worry that he could get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and be mistaken for a local. Evie feels increasingly distanced from him, and living in India only seems to be serving to push them further apart, but as the novel progresses, lots of things happen which serve to bring them back together again.
I loved the feeling of transportation this book gave me. It was one of those that I read and ended up feeling physically warm, because it had such great transportive power. It was also a really quick read, and great for my brain, which has been sleepy lately! I just have to say that I love the whole idea of this Challenge. Obviously I'm not going to object to anything where I get brand new books for free, but equally I won't just read something because it's free - it has to look interesting. This did, and it totally lived up to my expectations!


  1. The review I'm struggling to write at the minute is of my Transworld Book Challenge book too - although mine is Black Swan Rising.

    I considered putting The Sandalwood Tree on my list, but it lost out (although only just!) It's not my usual type of thing (I tend to get bored of Asian/African political stories - I know, I'm a pleb!) but I thought this sounded interesting from the beginning and your opinion only added to it :)

    I'm the same as you though - I have to believe in and respect the central character, or else it ruins the book. I think of it this way - if you don't like a person, you're never going to be interested in their stories, however nice their house might be. I feel slightly less judgemental about fictional characters that way!

  2. Looking back, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense... I've eaten four packs of Skittles today, so I blame that!

  3. I think Black Swan Rising is the next one on my list, so i'll look out for your review!
    Also, it totally made sense, and skittles are great!:-)

  4. I won this book but haven't started it yet -- although your review has me impatient! So glad it was so well written and compelling -- the setting is one of my favs so I'm very excited. I found your blog via the Historical Novel challenge -- so glad I did because it looks like you read the kind of things I like!