Monday, 11 April 2016

Eden Gardens - Louise Brown - a rich tapestry of delight and despair

My review

I must admit I found the way this book reads is more like a series of memoirs than a story, the descriptions of Bombay and Calcutta at the end of British rule in states of upheaval and famine are rich, detailed, evocative and often extremely harrowing.

I found a couple of brutal scenes set at the times of drought and famine and during upheaval and riots so strong and horrific I actually wanted to retch - therefore this is not a read for anyone of a sensitive nature it's not the light and fluffy romantic read one might expect from the beautiful cover, between the pages lie atrocity and human failing galore.

The book is narrated in turn by Maisy, daughter of the, quite frankly, sluttish Ma and Pushpa, the loyal family retainer, a local woman living a hard life and making the best of her lot. This is very much a story of the lot dealt to women in the 1940s and the prejudices, unfairness and uncertainty of life in India. We encounter class division and racial inequality and three women whom I found it difficult to admire but easy to believe in.

Ma comes to India to better her lot, life in England has become unbearable and holds no opportunity, so she heads to India where she has heard white women are in demand and white husbands are aplenty and sets out her stall to find a husband with the means to keep her well above the breadline.

However this doesn't work out quite as planned she has neither the class nor the wiles to secure a place in society or a husband to admit her and life soon finds her a widow with a young daughter and little means of supporting herself - she falls rather eagerly into prostitution with her legs wide open and a bottle of whisky in her hand. With a series of increasingly less wholesome "uncles" visiting the family home, very much on the wrong side of the tracks, it's easy to see why this little family are poor white trash. They don't fit in with any sector of Calcutta society, you only have to listen to Ma's quite foul mouthed use of the English language to know she's not one bit pukka and that's the relatively few times she's sober!

Ma's determined that Maisy won't follow her example, and will achieve what she herself failed - a good marriage to a British gentleman. But fair hair and white skin don't make a lady, nothing about Maisy’s life is proper, but she can’t see why - she’s never known life in polite British society and as far as she’s concerned she has white skin therefore she must be a lady. But brought up mostly by servant Pushpa, playing in the overflowing gutters of Calcutta with the children of poor native half caste families Maisy is destined to fall by the wayside too and this book tells her story with no punches pulled.

A portrait of a lady this is not, but a punchy well told, richly embellished tapestry of delight and despair it certainly is - sure to enthral, horrify and delight in equal measures.

I received my advance reading copy via Netgalley and this is my unbiased review.

The Blurb

Eden Gardens, Calcutta, the 1940s. In a ramshackle house, streets away from the grand colonial mansions of the British, live Maisy, her Mam and their ayah, Pushpa.

Whiskey-fuelled and poverty-stricken, Mam entertains officers in the night - a disgrace to British India. All hopes are on beautiful Maisy to restore their good fortune.

But Maisy's more at home in the city's forbidden alleyways, eating bazaar food and speaking Bengali with Pushpa, than dancing in glittering ballrooms with potential husbands.

Then one day Maisy's tutor falls ill. His son stands in. Poetic, handsome and ambitious for an independent India, Sunil Banerjee promises Maisy the world.

So begins a love affair that will cast her future, for better and for worse. Just as the Second World War strikes and the empire begins to crumble...

This is the other side of British India. A dizzying, scandalous, dangerous world, where race, class and gender divide and rule.

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