The Sandalwood Tree: A Novel
By Elle Newmark
Genre: General Fiction
Published 2011, Atria Books
Hardback, 357 pages
A sweeping novel that brings to life two love stories, ninety years apart, set against the rich backdrop of war-torn India.The book is like a story within a story. The book begins with the framing story of a woman, Evie, in 1947, who accompanies her husband and young son to India with the dual purpose of seeking adventure and hoping to mend her failing marriage with a man just returned from World War II, broken. When she discovers a bundle of 90-year-old letters hidden in the wall during a cleaning frenzy, the second story of the friendship between Felicity and Adela is revealed. From there, Evie's story diverges from that of Felicity and Adela's as Evie struggles to find more evidence of the two other women's existence and uses her fascination as a distraction from the political turmoil occurring around her.
In 1947, American historian and veteran of WWII, Martin Mitchell, wins a Fulbright Fellowship to document the end of British rule in India. His wife, Evie, convinces him to take her and their young son along, hoping a shared adventure will mend their marriage, which has been strained by war.
But other places, other wars. Martin and Evie find themselves stranded in a colonial bungalow in the Himalayas due to violence surrounding the partition of India between Hindus and Muslims. In that house, hidden behind a brick wall, Evie discovers a packet of old letters, which tell a strange and compelling story of love and war involving two young Englishwomen who lived in the same house in 1857.
Drawn to their story, Evie embarks on a mission to piece together her Victorian mystery. Her search leads her through the bazaars and temples of India as well as the dying society of the British Raj. Along the way, Martin’s dark secret is exposed, unleashing a new wedge between Evie and him. As India struggles toward Independence, Evie struggles to save her marriage, pursuing her Victorian ghosts for answers.
Bursting with lavish detail and vivid imagery of Calcutta and beyond, The Sandalwood Tree is a powerful story about betrayal, forgiveness, fate, and love.
The British are pulling out of India and separating the religious factions of Muslims and Hindus into the two countries of India and Pakistan, causing chaos and mayhem all over the country of India. The imagery and descriptions that Newmark fills the pages with are mesmerizing in their intensity and splendor. The colors, smells, and sounds have me half-falling in love with India to the point that I search for images online to match what I am reading to get a clearer picture of what the characters experience. Even though I struggled to stay interested in the plot for the first third of the book, the descriptions kept me reading and reading.
Felicity and Adela's story begins from childhood, describing how Felicity was born in India, but fostered with Adela's family. The infamous husband hunt brought them both back to India through different means, though neither had any interest in a husband, for different scandalous reasons. Residing in the same home that Evie now occupies, Felicity and Adela shun the conventional life of an Englishwoman in India, instead adopting an independent lifestyle and embracing India in all its diverse beauty.
Evie herself also seeks to shun what is expected of her, desiring to fully experience the culture of India all around her and use it to heal the problems in her own life. Eventually, she reconnects with the story of the two other women, even as major obstacles present themselves in both her private life and in the immediate villages. Letters take over the narration of Felicity and Adela's tale as Evie finds more to continue the story, instead of the author simply narrating what Evie can't find.
On the whole, the novel was beautifully written and contained a worthwhile plot, though I struggled to stay interested at the beginning. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a mystery and craves the beauty of India.
The Cover: Though the cover is quite beautiful, I found it to be a bit blurry. Artistically, it is a nice portrayal of a white woman entering India.
First Line: "Our train hurtled past a gold-spangled woman in a strawberry sari, regal yet sitting on the ground, patting cow dung into disks to dry in the scorching sun -- her cooking fuel."
Immediately, the reader is thrown into the vivid imagery that Newmark paints of the sights of India. Without knowing anything about the plot, I want more.
Favorite Quote: "My sense of sarcasm kicked in, and I thought, poor God, six thousand religions in the world and everyone claiming that He is on their side; what a headache."
Read For: Off The Shelf Challenge
*I received this book free of charge from the publisher for review purposes.*