In 1947, Evie Mitchell's husband, Martin, had survived World War II in body but not in mind. When he had the chance to leave their native Chicago to document the last days of the British Raj and the partitioning of India, Evie thought the new environment would be a fresh start to their marriage.
Once she has settled in to their rented bungalow, loneliness overcomes Evie, who has few people to talk to besides her five-year-old son. She is unused to servants and begins to feel as if she were losing control of her own life. The turning point comes on the day she finds a cache of letters hidden in the house.
The letters were written by two British Victorian women--Adela and Felicity--who lived in that same bungalow in the 1850s. Evie becomes obsessed with learning more about these young women, and her research exposes her to many sides of her adopted village, including the inner sanctum of the British social club and the noisy and dangerous streets of the local market. The more Evie focuses on Adela and Felicity, the more she falls in love with India and less tolerant she becomes of Martin. While discovering the hard choices made by the two nineteenth-century women, Evie faces some life-altering choices of her own.
Elle Newmark's The Sandalwood Tree transports readers to the colors, smells, and accents of British-ruled India. Set in two politically turbulent times--the eve of Indian independence and the Sepoy uprising a century earlier--the novel explores multiple aspects of change and freedom.
On the national level, Evie was unprepared for the widespread servitude of colonial India and the outright prejudices of the British ex-patriots. But she is equally shocked at the seemingly unbridgeable divisions within Indian society itself as it prepares for independence and partitioning. As well, Adela and Felicity, in 1857, are no less affected by the utter disrespect British officers had of Muslim and Hindu beliefs, which pushed their soldiers to revolt.
The Sandalwood Tree also explores the changing roles and rights of women. In Victorian England, women were still very much repressed, but by moving to the colonies--whether by choice (like Felicity) or under duress (like Adela)--women could gain some freedoms, including the handling of their own money until marriage. The 1940s, especially in the United States, saw the very beginnings of the feminist movement to come.
At the heart of the novel, though, is the story of how India, despite its own revolutions and restrictions, helped three women living a century apart find the strength to begin to unshackle themselves of others' expectations and embrace whatever joy and freedom they could find.
I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Tantor Audio, 11 hr, 23 min), read by Justine Eyre. Eyre's subtle and respectful accents enhance the Indian setting of the novel. Eyre brings understated emotion to the reading, guiding listeners without getting in their way.
Give it to me quickly: The colors, smells, and sounds of northern India underlie the story of three women, living almost a century apart, who struggle to find a balance between individual freedom and the promise of love with the expectations of family and society.
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