Saturday, July 16, 2011

East of The Sun by Julia Gregson

Summer 1928. The Kaiser-i-Hind is en route to Bombay. In Cabin D38, Viva Holloway, an inexperienced chaperone, is worried she's made a terrible mistake. Her advert in The Lady has resulted in three unsettling charges to be escorted to India.

Rose, a beautiful, dangerously naive English girl, is about to be married to the cavalry officer she has met only a handful of times. Victoria, her bridesmaid, is determined to lose her virginity on the journey, before finding a husband of her own in India. And overshadowing all three of them, the malevolent presence of Guy Glover, a strange and disturbed schoolboy.

Three potential Memsahibs with a myriad of reasons for leaving England, but the cargo of hopes and secrets they carry has done little to prepare them for what lies ahead.

From the parties of the wealthy Bombay socialites to the poverty of the orphans on Tamarind Street, East of the Sun is everything a historical novel should be: alive with glorious detail, fascinating characters and masterful storytelling.

This book was recommended to me a while back by both Marg and Alex. When I found a copy I immediately decided I had to take it home with me and so I did. Unfortunately I didn't chose the best of times to read it, this was the last book I read before being admitted to the hospital to have the twins so my mind was frequently elsewhere.

Having said that I have to confess that to me reading this book was not the joyous experience I was expecting after reading Marg's review. It might be my mood at the time or just that the writing didn't move me but I felt no empathy for any of the characters and if I am not interested in the characters I always have to struggle to finish it.

What interested me the most was the image of India, How the end of the British rule was fast coming to an end and not all the characters were aware that their lives would forcibly have to change. It's with a fast changing world that the three female characters - Viva, Rose and Tor - are confronted and each reacts in its own way, considering their own situations. Viva is returning to confront her past, Rose to marry a man she saw just a handful of times and Tor is determined to snatch a husband. They'll come out of the experience changed and stronger. Viva, especially, has a particularly dificult situation has she has to deal with a mentally unstable young man that she is also chaperoning on the way to India.

It left me curious about other books set in India and I'll have to go check my TBR pile and see what's there.

Now for a more appreciative review here's what Marg says:

Normally when I see a book mentioned somewhere and it prompts me to add it to my TBR list, I try to write it down on my list, so that I can thank the person who recommended the read. For some reason, when I added this book to my list I didn't do it, and it's a real shame, because I would love to say a hearty THANK YOU to whoever it was.

The book opens with Viva Holloway. She is a young woman with great spirit, great secrets, but unfortunately not great means. She spent many of her formative years in India before she was sent back to school in the UK, and now she longs to return to India - ostensibly to take ownership of a trunk of her dead parents possessions that is being held in trust for her by an old family friend. It does also give her a chance to run away from a disastrous love affair.

The only way she can get to India though is to act as a chaperone to three young people. Rose is on her way to India to get married to a dashing soldier by the name of Jack. She has only met him a few times, but she is excitedly planning a life with him, having no real idea about life in India or about what to expect from marriage, especially as a soldiers wife. Accompanying her is her friend Victoria, known to everyone as Tor, who is going to be her bridesmaid, and hopefully to find herself a husband whilst she is at it. The third person that Viva has to chaperone is a young man of 16 years age called Guy Glover, who has been dismissed from his English school and is returning back to India to be with his parents.

From the start it is clear that there are going to be issues, and so it proves to be. Whilst it is not all plain sailing (sorry, bad pun!), we are also given a glimpse into the life of board for young ladies of the day as they attend parties, make new friends, stop off in Port Said and do a quick trip to Cairo, as the weather warms up and they all sleep on deck - men on one side and women on the other thank you very much.

The journeys that our characters take are very much individual. Along the way we meet up with the rich and bored memsahibs who are only interested in their own lives, the early days of marriage to a stranger for Rose, the search for a husband for the less than confident Tor, and for Viva, a life where she is struggling to make ends meet and therefore has to take up work in a local orphanage and therefore gets to see first hand the poverty, the joy and the conflicts amongst the locals. For those days in India are leading up to the end of British Colonial rule and therefore it is not all swigging G and T's at the club for those people who have chosen to make their lives in a far off land.

There is a great joy in the reading of this book. It's not great literature, but there are times when what you want is an absorbing read that you can get lost in, as opposed to something that you have to think really hard about all the time! There are a few times when the narrative loses a little bit of smoothness, but I was fully invested in the characters, in the setting and in the story and so it didn't really bother me at all.

Reading this book also made me think about my grandmother's life. She made the journey from the UK in the 1930s, not to India, but to Australia. I am pretty sure that she travelled with her family and not as a single woman, but we have talked a bit before about getting off the boat in Egypt. One time when I was at her house, she even got out some things that she had kept from the boat trip over - including a few menus and things. It's fair to say that the food that we eat today has changed a lot from what was served up in those days. If it wasn't for the fact that I live so far away from her, I would have been around to her house to look through all that information again!

This book is apparently one of Richard and Judy's Summer Reads (a big deal in the UK - somewhat similar to getting chosen to be a Oprah book club book) and doesn't seem to have been released in places like the US yet, but I am really glad that my library had it. I have now requested this author's first book, called The Water Horse, and I am very much looking forward to reading it. Another book that I remember reading which featured a similar story about travelling by ship to a different life that I enjoyed was Jojo Moyes' Ship of Brides.

A very interesting read, set in a very interesting location in very interesting times, and a joy to read.

If you are interested in hearing a little more from the author, there is an interview with her posted at The Book Depository. Click here to read it!


  1. You know, I was reading this thinking Wow, I didn't know that Ana's grandmother came to Australia. Helps when you read it properly! lol

  2. lol maybe she should have... let me make it more obvious that it is your review.

  3. I really enjoyed this one but it was a little slow paced. I feel like the reviews for this one have been very mixed though, so it is definitely not for everyone.

  4. I have a copy of this book so I'll probably still read it!

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