This is my first book for the Transworld Book Group. I was immediately drawn to The Sandalwood Tree as I love historical fiction set in India – and I’m pleased to say that it didn’t disappoint me at all.
This novel consists of two storylines, both of which take place during an important period of India’s history. In 1947 we meet an American woman, Evie Mitchell, who has moved to India with her husband, Martin, and five-year-old son Billy. Martin, a historian, is planning to study the end of British rule and the process of Partition (the separation of Hindus and Muslims which led to the creation of Pakistan). As the Mitchells try to settle into their new life it becomes obvious that there are big problems in their marriage. Martin, who served in the US army during World War II, is still haunted by some of the things he experienced in Germany and is suffering from what we might now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
Soon after moving into their new house in the village of Masoorla, Evie discovers some old letters hidden behind a loose brick in the wall. The letters were written by two British women, Felicity Chadwick and Adela Winfield, who lived in the same house during the 1850s – a time of rising tension between the British and Indian people, leading to the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. Evie is intrigued and begins to search for more information about the two Victorian women. As she slowly uncovers Felicity and Adela’s story through a series of letters, diaries and historical documents, she starts to see some similarities between her own life and theirs.
Elle Newmark’s descriptions of India are filled with colour and detail. Whether she’s writing about the food prepared by Habib, the Mitchells’ cook, a monkey swinging from the branches of a tree, or a perfume stall at the bazaar, her images really help to bring the book’s setting to life. Because most of the story is told from Evie’s perspective and she is new to India, seeing everything for the first time, we can experience all the sights, sounds and smells along with her. We also share Evie’s fascination with Adela and Felicity and we feel her frustration every time she attempts to address the problems with her marriage.
Reading The Sandalwood Tree is an excellent way to learn about India’s history and culture and Elle Newmark makes everything easy to understand. But it’s also a great story with a beautiful setting, fascinating plot and complex characters who grow and change over the course of the novel. The transitions between the two periods are handled perfectly, moving smoothly from Evie’s story to Felicity and Adela’s, and it was interesting to see the parallels and connections between them. I found I enjoyed both storylines equally – each one would have been strong enough to form a complete novel on its own, but it’s the way the two are interwoven that makes this book special.