EAST OF THE SUN by Julia Gregson

Book Quote:

“Look well to this day,
For it is life.
In its brief course lies all the realities of existence.
For yesterday is but a memory and tomorrow only a vision.”

A Sanskrit Poem

Book Review:

Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie (JUN 28, 2009)

Each year, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, legions of young British women, whom, for one reason or another, failed to “catch” a husband during their debutante season, set sail for India in the hopes of meeting and “snaring” young, eligible men to wed – single civil servants, military officers, etc, were plentiful in the subcontinent, and eager to marry and end their lonely lives as bachelors. Men of the aristocratic class outnumbered women three to one. These women were heedless of the severe Indian climate, the country’s many languages, various cultures and the loneliness and boredom some were about to experience. The ships filled with hopeful, nervous young ladies, were called the “Fishing Fleets.” Women who failed, once more, in the marriage market, traveled back home alone, and were called “returned empties.”

In London, 1928, Viva Holloway boards the ship, the Kaiser-i-Hind, bound for Bombay, with two young ladies and a troublesome teenage boy in her charge. The lovely, intelligent and very spirited Viva, is orphaned – her parents and younger sister died in India years before. The main purpose of her voyage is to retrieve a chest which her parents left for her in Simla, the summer capital of the British Raj. She does not know all the details about her family’s deaths and is ambivalent about discovering them. There is too much pain involved in thinking about her lost loved ones. Since she has little money, the only way she can travel to India is by taking a paid position as a chaperone. Viva had posted an advertisement in a magazine “The Lady.”   She is an extremely responsible spinster, in her mid-twenties, but is a complete novice at monitoring and overseeing young people and their behavior. Yet, how difficult can the job be? Her goal is to lead an independent life and to become a writer. She plans to write a series of articles, perhaps even a book, about the “Fishing Fleet,” to be published by “The Voice,” a feminist magazine begun by suffragettes. Viva wants to “lift the lid on what really happens to all those woman going to India, and what they think they’ll do when the whole thing collapses.”

One of Viva’s charges, Rose Wetherby, met her dashing fiance briefly at a party during the Season. He is a calvary officer who spends much of his time with his men patrolling the outposts of the British Empire. Rose is helplessly naive and although she thinks she loves her soon-to-be husband, she has a few second thoughts. She barely knows the man she has promised to share her life with.

Victoria Sowerby, called Tor, is to accompany her best friend Rose, and act as her bridesmaid. She is going to India find a husband. Chubby, somewhat clumsy, and not anywhere near as beautiful as Rose, she is thankful to get away from her domineering mother, and hopes to find love and adventure.

And then there is Guy Glover, a troubled teenager, who is returning to his parents in India after a ten year absence. He has been expelled from public school for gambling and not paying his considerable debts. Guy is “not a strong boy mentally,” advises Mr. Partington, the school’s headmaster. Indeed, as the novel develops, we discover just how unbalanced Guy is.

The girls form shipboard friendships, and Viva, against her will, finds herself attracted to Frank, the ship’s flirtatious doctor. She is determined to snub him, as she has been hurt in a prior relationship, and does not trust the fleeting affections of men. But Rose, Tor and Viva form a tenuous friendship with him anyway, as he is interesting, fun to be around, very bright and more sincere than Viva originally thought.

One evening, Guy, who remains a sinister presence throughout the novel, loses his temper and attacks a prominent member of an Indian family. This fight, which leaves the man deaf in one ear, sets in motion serious trouble for himself and his temporary chaperone. When Guy arrives in Bombay and Viva informs his parents of the fight and other misbehavior on the Kaiser-i-Hind, Guy lies to his parents and says that Viva is an incompetent. He accuses her of drinking and not paying attention to her charges. However, Guy’s surreptitious drinking has gone way over his allotted budget. Enraged, Mr. Glover refuses to pay Viva her salary and her ticket. She is left with much less funds than she had planned on.

Upon landing, Rose goes off with her fiance. Tor is to stay with Cecilia “Ci Ci” Mallinson, a vampish, narcissistic middle-aged woman, who is a friend of the family. And Viva winds up at the local YWCA. The three women stay in touch and do see each other as frequently as possible. Guy, turns up to make trouble for Viva whenever he can.

The stories of these four main characters play out against exotic India and the period’s political turmoil. Mahatma Gandhi, political and spiritual leader of his country during the Indian independence movement, was a pioneer of passive resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience. Meanwhile, India’s Muslim population, was stirring. Many wanted “partition,” a Muslim state of their own. There would eventually be much violence between Hindus and Muslims.

Although I am fascinated by this period in Indian history, the first hundred pages of East of the Sun are slow and somewhat boring. There are so many pages filled with pointless descriptions of hair styles, clothing, shopping, tea parties, etc., when the author could have written more about the characters and the political situation. Many of Guy’s antics, and their consequences, are unbelievable – even for a mentally unstable person. Ms. Gregson’s plot feels very forced at times. The writing and the story improve after the first 100 pages – and then the novel gets much better.   I recommend this to readers who have the patience to wade through the first 100 pages. After that, it is a worthwhile read.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 35 readers
PUBLISHER: Touchstone; Reprint edition (June 2, 2009)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
AMAZON PAGE: East of the Sun
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Other books about British Raj period in India: A Black Englishman by Carolyn Slaughter

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

and another book you may like if you enjoy this one: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See


June 28, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Facing History, India-Pakistan, World Lit

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