India has long held a fascination for me. Having had the good fortune to visit, it continues to intrigue me and so I often search out Indian-set novels. This particular novel was on my radar because it combines my interest in India with the genre of historical fiction so I was pleased as punch when my bookclub chose to read it. In the waning years of the British Raj, single women left England for India in search of husbands. They were called the "Fishing Fleet," and what they found in India was very different than what they left behind them. Gregson has taken this actual historical occurrence as her jumping off point for this sweeping novel.
Viva Holloway is 25 and she has hired herself out as a chaperone to two other younger women and one teenaged boy in order to pay her own way back to India, the country of her birth and where she lost her family. Viva's charges, Rose, Tor and Guy become completely intertwined in her life both during the long days of sailing and once they get to India itself. Rose is going to be married to a British officer whom she has only known for a brief time. Her best friend, Tor, is going to be Rose's bridesmaid but she's also looking forward to slipping the stifling, unrealistic bonds of her mother. Troubled, young Guy is returning to India to be reunited with his parents after being expelled from his boarding school. Viva forges a friendship with her charges Rose and Tor and with Frank, the ship's doctor, when Guy has a violent episode while on the ship.
Once they land in India, all of their lives diverge and converge again in surprising ways. And the physical plot is far-reaching and wide-ranging. But the book is as much about the personal landscape as it is about British ex-pats in India and their role in a British Raj coming to a close. Gergson deftly examines the nature of friendship and secrets, expectations and the role of women, memory and the reality of the present. Each of the women has a different reason for traveling to India and responds to their situations in country in very different ways. Their circumstances highlight a wide variety of lives and yet they remain quintessentially British. The faint whiff of decay from the waning years of the Raj is fully evident throughout the novel but doesn't overwhelm the storyline. The main characters are well-rounded and appealing, even when the reader winces at their naivete. Superficially the novel is well-paced and compelling but it works on a deeper thematic level as well. Fans of historical fiction, women's literature, and Indian-set novels will all enjoy this grandiose addition to the shelves.