The year is 1878. As the first girl to be born to the Nachimandas in over sixty years, beautiful, spirited Devi is adored by her entire family. She befriends Devanna, a gifted young boy whose mother has died in tragic circumstances. The two quickly become inseparable, 'like two eggs in a nest', as they grow up amidst the luscious jungles, rolling hills, and rich coffee plantations of Coorg in Southern India; cocooned by an extended family whose roots have been sunk in the land for hundreds of years.
Their futures seem inevitably linked, but everything changes when, one night, they attend a 'tiger wedding'. It is there that Devi gets her first glimpse of Machu, the celebrated tiger killer and a hunter of great repute. Although she is still a child and Machu is a man, Devi vows that one day she will marry him. It is this love that will gradually drive a wedge between Devi and Devanna, sowing the seed of a heartbreaking tragedy that will have consequences for the generations to come.
Whilst I haven't seen a lot around about this book, apparently it was a pretty big deal in India. The author received the biggest advance for a debut novel in Indian publishing history and has been translated into numerous languages as well. It seems to me that it also quite unusual for a piece of Indian historical fiction written by an Indian author makes it into English. I love reading historical fiction set in India but generally those books will be mainly focused on the British characters rather than the Indian characters. In this book, it is very much the other way around, with issues relating to colonisation taking only a small, but pivotal, role in the book.
The story starts in 1878 with the birth of the first girl to be born to the Nachimanda family for sixty years. Her name is Devi, and she is treated as a princess by the family - princess, not only when she is a child but also when she is older. Her childhood companion is a boy named Devanna. He practically becomes a member of the family after a tragedy leaves him an orphan. Devi and Devanna are inseparable!
Once they start to go to school, it is clear that Devi is a very clever young man and he is taken under the wing of the German missionary who runs the local school. Devi takes an avid interest in many subjects, but most especially in botany. Devi's future is so bright that there is even the prospect of an overseas education, until that choice is taken away from him before he even knows of it.
Devanna has long been in love with Devi and knows that they are feted to be together but unfortunately for him, she has set her sites on his cousin Machu, the tiger killer and she will settle for no one else.
When Devanna's education is cruelly cut short and Devi's choices are even more cruelly taken away from her, so begins a lifetime of hurt and pain for all the characters involved, and even for future generations.
This book has been compared to other famous sagas like The Thorn Birds and Gone With the Wind and to be honest it was this comparison that compelled me to want to read the book when I heard an interview with the author on NPR. Whilst it never quite reached the same heights in terms of the romance aspects, it was most definitely a book that I loved reading!
I would classify this book as more literary style of historical fiction. Amongst it's strengths were the use of the land and traditions of Coorg, a region in India now known as Kodagu and apparently referred to as the Scotland of India. During the span of 60 years or so, we see the changes that take place in India, including the battles fought by the British colonists, the establishment and importance of the coffee crops, culture superstition and class, important national events such as the first Indian hockey team to play in the Olympics and many more. I suspect that Indian readers would really love some of the name checking of people that I have never heard of but who may well be important characters in Indian history.
There were certain scenes in the book that were so well written that my heart was in my mouth as I was reading them. For example, I am not sure that I will ever forget the scene where Machu is fighting alongside the English during a battle in the mountains.
There were however also weaknesses with the book as well though. The first, and biggest for me, was definitely Devi. She is portrayed as being so beautiful and so perfect, but by the end of the book she has become a hardened crone and she treated people, specifically her family pretty badly. She did have a hard life and was undoubtedly treated unforgivably, but then she made decisions that left her in the same situation ongoing. It took her many, many years to even think of what it was that Devanna has also suffered. Believe me, I am not excusing Devanna for his actions in the events by any stretch of the imagination, but it dragged out way too long.
There are also a few typos within the text, including in the back cover copy which is not the author's fault but is disappointing.
If you enjoy beautiful imagery, family sagas, books set in India, or just historical fiction with a setting outside of the more common European countries, then this may well be a book that you will enjoy.