Sunday, 1 May 2016

Review: 'East of the Sun', by Julia Gregson (2008)

This is one of those rare doorstop size books – it's truly epic in its scope, how much it has to get across, truly minute in its well-researched detail, truly believable in its characters and their situations, mind sets, feelings…its taken me over two months to read it, till I was fed up of reading it, but unable to stop because it was so excruciatingly well-written, well-done, educational as well as being an amazing story.  There’s so many books *like this* out there – great tub thumping stories, but they descend into melodrama – this one does not, it holds onto itself and its characters and it tells of all the many parts of India, as seen by us, as we are seen by the inhabitants, and as we all misunderstand each other.

It would be so easy to mistake this book for one of those others, lush, rich people having dramas played out against exotic backgrounds.  This one was so much more.  It was people of all economic groupings, for a start, and it wasn’t just us, it was the Indians, shown in so many different ways.  Everyone commented on everyone else, rightly, wrongly.  I understood so much more about the cultures of us in the ‘20s, off on ‘the fishing fleet’ to find husbands; and of what India was like at the time – Gandhi and times changing, us changing [or not in the case of some], the Indians changing towards us, in so many ways large and small.  There is so much detailed historical analysis and research clearly done in the writing of this book, and all doled out during the story, so that its so much easier to understand this complicated period, and from so many different points of view. 

Characters are wonderful – Viva, the bluestocking author, who wants to learn all about India and be a writer – her road is rough, and all her mysteries come to haunt her until she is healed at the end.  Rose who comes to India for the equivalent of an arranged marriage, neither she nor her prospective husband Jack truly understanding that their lives before and after marriage will be utterly different; there was no getting to know each other, no blending…they cut each other’s lives in half and bled through the book until a sort of truce was reached, unhappy but its where they’re left.  Tor, who is desperate to get away from her controlling mother, and stay in India after accompanying Rose out.  She is full of life and enthusiasm and ends up happy, for which I am so glad, with the wonderful boyish Toby, who understood so much – there’s a very affecting story about a small bird he tells. 

The subsidiary characters are legion – all the children, of all creeds, at the orphanage, especially Talika. Pundit, and Ci Ci – two sad sides of us in India: a faithful and kindly servant mistreated by a so spoilt bitch.  Mr Aziz Anwar and his malicious confusion, so understandable.  Daisy and Miss Wagstaff, older woman who have immense bearing on the plot at the beginning and end.  Frank, Viva’s eventual husband, a character who changes and changes as we get to know him; Nigel, who sung on the boat over and recited poetry but then later kills himself during the monsoon season.  William, a character of poisonous fact and harm to a vulnerable young girl.  And the character of Guy Glover, the book’s ghost, who has so much impact on everyone’s story but at the end disappears, a no hope loose end, doomed to be killed in a foreign war at some point, his schizophrenia only just coming to be understood, and then ignored.

Then there’s all I learned here: about Indian ragas, “sacred music used to greet dawn and sunset, summer, spirits and fire” (p.86); the Awali Crisis (p.126) – constant hints in the book, stirrings of the traumas to come; a poem called ‘Ithaka’ by Cavafy (pp.130-131); Urdu poets – Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib…and these are just the things I remembered to jot down.  There’s loads of incidental, perfectly unintrusive richness adding facts in here.  The story winds round, all inclusive, all senses stimulated, thought provoking in its conversation, emotionally involving in its characters.   

Totally recommended.