Love crosses the color line, in the India of the British Raj.
A young Welshwoman arrives in India in 1920 with her newly married husband, a professional soldier. Theirs is a pragmatic union, not a romance, and when the woman meets an Indian doctor—a high-caste Hindu, Oxford-educated, fabulously rich, intensely idealistic—they fall passionately in love. After many separations and ordeals (the doctor is tortured by the Brits, the woman survives a knife attack by her vengeful husband) and many changes of locale (a dreary barracks bungalow, the gorgeous replica of an English country house, idyllic Jammu, wild, anarchic Peshawar), the lovers find refuge in the remote tea hills of Assam. That’s the storyline of Slaughter’s (Dreams of the Kalahari, 1987, etc.) ninth novel, and it looks inviting, possible grist for the Merchant/Ivory mill. Up close, however, there are problems. Isabel Herbert needs to leave Europe and the stench of a war that claimed her childhood sweetheart. But with her money and looks, couldn’t she have found a better mate than Neville Webb, a lowly sergeant and “lout” (Isabel’s word)? And in caste- and class-conscious India, isn’t Dr. Sam Singh slumming when he takes up with Isabel? That’s for starters. Husband Neville departs for the North-West Frontier to fight Afghans, leaving Isabel conveniently on her own, able to slip out of the constricting web of barracks society. It’s all too easy, even for a free spirit like Isabel, as is her flight to Delhi to become a doctor, with no thought of the marital repercussions. Neville does catch up with her, but the other major plot developments occur offstage: The brutal communal violence in which Sam’s wife dies, and a bomb attack aimed at the Viceroy, which leads to Sam’s imprisonment and torture (his father is an arms merchant involved with terrorists). The jerky narrative pauses often to reflect on Sam’s dual nature (black and English) and the age-old paradox of India: extraordinary beauty, abject misery.
Great potential, clumsy execution.