Paperback published by Sphere- 11th June 2020 Hardback out now!
Normally I keep my reviews fairly brief but this book spoke to my heart & I sincerely hope you won’t mind indulging me a little with this slightly longer review.
First a little context as to why I wanted to read this particular book immediately!
Personal Family History:
My English Great Grandfather, Eric Leighton MBE, was Head of the Military police in Bombay and eventually, Nagpur, India. He was a bit of a cad by all accounts and was married three times! My nan & her sister, June, were born there. When she was 7, June was sent to a boarding school in the South of India at a Hill Station in the Nilgiri Hills.
There are lots of stories about them growing up in India; June remembers travelling with her mother to accompany her father, who was also responsible for visiting the Rajahs at their palaces to make sure they were governing along British lines. She visited their palaces, some incredibly sumptuous and grand and some extremely run down, with swimming pools full of frogspawn! June and her mother had to go to the women’s quarters with the Ranee (the Rajah’s wife) but she does remember eating with the Rajahs.
Both Gt. Grandpa & June’s mother became sick with Diptheria and were incredibly ill, her mother, sadly, died and Eric consoled himself by marrying the pretty Irish nurse, Doreen Kelly, who had looked after him. Like you do.
Doreen had my Nan and, when she was a few months old, took her back to the UK to stay with my Gt. Gt. Grandpa Harry.
One morning he went for a walk and when he returned, he could hear my Nan crying. After a short search, he found her crying in a drawer, where she had been sleeping, and her mother had vanished. They never saw her again and my Nan was sent back to India. Great Grandpa, obviously moved on again and Auntie Reenie, thankfully, lasted a whole lot longer than his previous wives!
Nan’s parents also went to lots of parties and their social life was centred on The Club with other Brits and some wealthy Indians.
She talked of the ‘unbearable heat’ with Punkah Wallahs-operating the fans, mostly the deaf servants were selected so that they didn’t overhear conversations! Her father had a ‘Bearer’ who was devoted into him and as the troubles started some of the Indian servants were attacked just for working for the British. There was a cook, a water carrier and boys who worked in the kitchen and the sweeper who had to empty the commodes. The houses had no running water and toilets had two doors. The inside one led to the house and an outside one was used by the sweeper (untouchable caste) to empty the commode. They kept a pet mongoose who job it was to get rid of the snakes!
She remembered the parties her parents would attend at The Club and at the house. The bungalows that they lived in, how she was looked after by her, much adored, Ayah-one of the many servants they had. How they would keep the tiger cubs in the garden after their mothers had been shot on a hunt &, when we discussed the very poor treatment of some Indians & the effect of ‘colonialism’, she was philosophical about how things were. Especially when catching my horrified expression, she would exclaim ‘Thankfully things have changed, but that’s just how it was darling!’
Coincidentally, my dad is from Bombay too-its name didn’t change to ‘Mumbai’ until 1995-he immigrated to Watford in the early 1970’s with his brother in search of a better life, and left my grandparents, Ali & Lila, there until a few years later when they came too. My mum was 17 when she met him and she was pregnant at 20-Eric was her grandpa-much to the absolute horror of my Nan & Grandad, and it wasn’t until I was a year old that they allowed my mum to visit the house again! Talk about two completely different backgrounds-I’m like a fusion of the two parts of India!
For me, I always feel a little conflicted. I’m so proud of my ‘English’ family, I adored my late Great Grandpa and he received an MBE for his work in India and Africa. When I went to the palace to receive my MBE, I know they would all have been bursting with pride! When I teach, I always explain that some parts of our British history are not always pleasant, especially the events around Partition. Equally, I’m as proud of my Indian background, the culture, the heritage and my dad’s hard work to build a new life in a foreign country & staying true to his Muslim faith.
You’re probably thinking ‘Fab Boo, now we’re up to speed with your family tree, but what’s that got to do with the book?’ I’m getting to that bit, bear with me; you’ll soon see!
When this book arrived, I picked it up straight away. I’d read ‘Island in the East’ and had thoroughly enjoyed it but, because this one was set in Bombay, I knew I couldn’t wait and I devoured it on my sun lounger in the garden yesterday!
Honestly, this book was superb from the very first line.
If you’ve stuck with me this far…thank you: it’s all about this amazing book from here!
The story, in case you haven’t yet worked it out yet, is set in Bombay! 🤣
Maddy Bright lives with her, slightly uptight, mother and her much adored father, who is the Head of the Bombay Civil Service. They live a charmed life enjoying all of the excitement of the Bombay social scene. I absolutely love the description of the city here; the complete assault on the senses that a busy Indian city has, the irrepressible heat, the noise in the markets & station, the smell of spices and the myriad of colours of the fabrics, street food, spices, fruit, vegetables, flowers that stall holders sell & so, so many people!
The thundering hooves of the polo ponies, the refreshing gin & tonics packed full of almost instantly melting ice, the food that wilted almost as soon as it was put on the table, not to mention slurping Kulfi in a race against time to eat it before it completely melted!
Jenny Ashcroft completely & utterly captures the way of life of the English in colonial India, just as my nan described it to me all those years ago.
Maddy’s mother is keen for her to settle with Guy, a surgeon 20 years Maddy’s senior and Maddy, whilst incredibly polite, struggles to take this idea particularly seriously. Then, through her friends, siblings, Della & Peter, she meets Luke Devereaux, and everything changes from that point on. It’s 1914, and despite the threat of war coming from Europe, they fall in love & continue their, seemingly idyllic lives in Bombay but word from the Civil Service offices reveal that Luke and Peter and several of the other officers, need to make plans to train Indian troops in order to begin to mobilise into Europe.
The inevitable happens and the men go off to fight, leading battalions of young Indians, who had probably never left the security of their villages before to fight for a country and an enemy they had never seen.
The way that Jenny Ashcroft writes about their (both English & Indian) experiences in the war is quite magnificent. I think it would have been easy to dismiss the part that the Indians played in this conflict, perhaps suggesting that they were inferior in battle in some way. She doesn’t.
1.4 Indian men, 22% Sikh, fought alongside and died with British troops-fighting the Empire that oppressed them in their own country. We can’t change our colonial history, and it is horrifying to know that despite their sacrifice, so many Sikhs were killed in 1919 in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre: British troops opened fire on thousands of unarmed men women & children who had gathered in some gardens in Amritsar. Not much of a way to thank them for all that they did is it?
However, it is clear throughout this story what sacrifices they made too, how they bravely & selflessly went out and fought in a strange country struggling with the language, & different climate, especially the snow, and I applaud her for that.
A Sikh regiment, 1914 France. Picture: Getty.
Jenny Ashcroft’s description of the trenches is accurate and vivid, and the character’s thoughts and feelings are equally as honest and true to life as I imagine they would have been: bravery, courage & selflessness intertwined with anxiety, fear and futility. One particular scene on the battlefield, although fictional, could have been any one of the real sons, husbands, fathers or uncles who had had similar experiences and was written so vividly, and she captured it so perfectly, that it had me weeping quite uncontrollably.
Luke and Maddy are obviously separated but they write to each other constantly, and like all families with men at war, she anxiously awaits his safe return. But life isn’t straightforward and Maddy’s life is going to change forever again.
I don’t really want to comment on how the story is constructed, because I don’t want to ruin it, except to say that it is written from several different character viewpoints, which weave the plot together beautifully. Half way through, I thought I knew where the story was going and then it twisted a completely different way again, and again AND again. It is utterly compelling- and I cried again at the end. My husband looked up in alarm from his newspaper and simply said ‘Whatever is the matter?’
I summarised the story and said ‘Isn’t it amazing that someone can make you feel such emotion that you cry real tears about fictional characters just from the words they’ve written on the page? What an exceptional talent.’ Then continued to sniffle for about twenty minutes!
I’ve never met Jenny Ashcroft, and of course the words are all her exceptional talent, but it felt like she had heard my nan’s stories too and embellished them beautifully, so that I could envisage her 1920’s India in all of its vibrant, exotic, glittering detail. Hopefully now you understand the reason for Boo’s family history lesson at the start!
To confirm, you don’t need an Indian family history to appreciate this wonderful book! It is a stunning story of love, loss, devotion and loyalty & I loved every single word of it. Thank you Jenny. 5🌟