In this riveting historical novel based on true events, political tensions in a Scottish mission in 19th-century Calcutta, India, give rise to a sexual scandal.
Mary Pigot has been the superintendent of the Ladies’ Association Female Mission in Calcutta for 10 years before the Rev. William Hastie arrives in 1879. Hastie, the principal of the Scottish College, quickly finds fault with Pigot’s policies, practices, and mannerisms; for example, he feels that the orphanage that she manages isn’t up to Scottish standards of cleanliness. Hastie and his comrades also don’t agree with her proselytizing approach: “educate first, convert later—if ever.” Nor does Pigot share Hastie’s resentment toward members of the Free Church, which broke away from the Church of Scotland in 1843. She’s quick to assist anyone who needs help—even members of the local community whom Hastie finds questionable. The growing friction between Pigot and Hastie culminates in a formal investigation of the superintendent followed by libelous claims that she’s abusive, neglectful, incompetent, and immoral. Due to her casual demeanor with male colleagues, her enemies accuse her of “fornication” with an Indian man and a fellow missionary. To clear her name and take back her position, Pigot takes Hastie to court, leading to an unpredictable, sensational trial. Although the book is set in the 1800s, its approach to political, religious, cultural, and gender-related issues is surprisingly relevant. Wagner-Wright (Rama’s Labyrinth, 2015, etc.) paints India’s culture and climate in stunning detail: “March comes on like a slow fire. Another week, and we’ll have the humidity.” The realistic, intricate characters take turns narrating the tale, panoramically revealing themselves through their perceptions. At one point, for example, Hastie narrates, “I stop and take a breath, composing myself for this audience of fools.” The plot’s first half proceeds at an unhurried pace, but when the trial starts, its momentum resembles that of a competitive sporting event. Wagner-Wright’s extensive research allows her to stay remarkably true to history while her creativity brings an outstanding story of courage and fortitude to life.
A powerful story with a vivid setting, compelling plot, and multifaceted characters.