Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Review: The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

Last year I waffled back and forth over whether or not to accept a review copy of Elle Newmark's debut novel, The Book of Unholy Mischief. The cover copy mentioned some things that made me leery of reading it. Eventually I went ahead and said yes because the things that intrigued me about the book overcame my qualms. And I have rarely been happier that I took the chance. So when The Sandalwood Tree was made available, I jumped at the chance to read it. The fact that it is set in India in the final year of the British Raj and follows the life of a woman whose marriage is under intense pressure and who finds and becomes obsessed with the Victorian letters of two British women who lived in her home a hundred years prior made it almost tailor-made to my tastes. And like The Book of Unholy Mischief, this is an expansive and engrossing tale.

Evie and Martin used to have a strong and happy marriage. Then Martin went off to Germany to fight and came home a different man. Now their marriage is crumbling. So when Martin, an historian, is offered a Fulbright scholarship to go to India to document the end of the British Raj, Evie fights to accompany him with their 5 year old son Billy in the hope that a new place will help them find their way back to the open and loving relationship they once had. But India is in turmoil, facing Partition, and tension runs high, exacerbating Martin's fears and making Evie feel constrained and resentful. And while they are in a fairly safe place, removed from the bulk of the religious violence breaking out elsewhere, there are menaces even in this British summer outpost.

As Martin goes about adopting native costume and habits and courting danger, he forbids Evie to move freely herself, an order she disobeys, driven by her curiousity about a set of letters from the mid-1800's that she found secreted behind a brick in the kitchen wall. Wanting to know more about Felicity and Adela, Evie embarks on a search to learn more about them, their circumstances, and what could possibly send at least one of these Englishwomen to India in the midst of the Sepoy Rebellion. Slowly Evie pieces together the story of Felicity and Adela, their lives and loves, and the long-forgotten scandal(s) swirling about them.

Evie and Martin's marriage continues to founder and fail as Evie reads about these two unusual Victorian women who pushed so hard against the constraints of the historical time in which they lived. As the women declared, they "lived for joy." Evie wants desperately to live for joy also, trying, pushing, and demanding an opening back into Martin's life and mind.

This is a sweeping love story on so many fronts and involving so many character combinations: the love of husband and wife, the love between illicit lovers, the love of parent for child, the love between friends, and unrequited love. Even as the country itself is being torn asunder, all of these unifying relationships are playing out on the page and serving as a path for Evie and Martin to find their way back to each other.

The place is beautifully rendered in this novel. India and her overwhelming color and lushness stand out even as Newmark has captured the insularity, racism, and surprising compassion of the late 1940's British ex-pat community there. Making Evie and Martin American allows them to stand out as different from the start and enables Newmark to have Evie interact a bit more with the Indian community than would otherwise have been believable. The parallel stories twine together nicely and keep the reader engaged with both plots. Each chapter starts with a year heading making it easy to know when Evie and Martin's story flips to Felicity and Adela's story. Despite this though, the story must be narrated by a modern day Evie based on a few comments (a remark about Vietnam vets is just one example) in the narration. This is rather disconcerting as the sensibility of these comments is at odds with the post-WWII society during which the tale is set. This only happens a few times in the very beginning of the book and then the incongruous and modern Evie disappears, which is all to the good. The ending of the book is a bit rushed, predictable, and a little too easy but the ride to that point makes it forgivable. Over all, a very enjoyable read and I'll definitely look forward to Newmark's next book.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. These books sound fascinating. Love Colonial literature...

  2. Thank you for that lovely review. The book will not be released until April 5 so I doubt there will be much discussion today. Still, I'll check back later to see whether anyone has a question or comment for me.

    thanks again,
    Elle Newmark


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