The Sandalwood Tree Paperback
by Elle Newmark
It is 1947, and Evie and Martin Mitchell have just arrived in the Indian village of Masoorla with their five-year-old son.
But cracks soon appear in their marriage as Evie struggles to adapt to her new life, and Martin fails to bury unbearable wartime memories.
When Evie finds a collection of letters, concealed deep in the brickwork of their rented bungalow, so begins an investigation that consumes her, allowing her to escape to another world, a hundred years earlier, and to the extraordinary friendship of two very different young women. And as Evie's fascination with her Victorian discoveries deepens, she unearths powerful secrets.
But at what cost to her present, already fragile existence?
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 512 pages
- Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
- Publication Date: 04/08/2011
- Category: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
- ISBN: 9780552775229
Showing 1 - 4 of 4 reviews.
Review by Kasthu
Maybe I’ve been reading too many classic novels recently, but I thought that this novel fell a bit short for me. I guess I was expecting lush descriptions of India, vivid descriptions of historical events, and great characters. Sadly, I was disappointed.The Sandalwood Tree is a split-time novel. One half of the novel focuses on an American, Evie, whose husband Martin comes to India on a Fulbright scholarship to document the end of the British Raj and the separation of India and Pakistan in 1947. One day, she finds a packet of old, illegible letters that documents the friendship between two Englishwomen, Adela and Felicity in 1856. The chapters then alternate between the two stories; Evie’s story focuses on the disintegration of her marriage, while Felicity goes to India as a member of the “Fishing Fleet,” young Englishwomen who went to India to find husbands once they’d failed to find husbands within two seasons of coming out. You can tell right off the bat from the tension in the beginning of each story that something big’s going to occur…Well, I thought it was an interesting idea, but the characters weren’t really as well rounded as I might have liked them to be. None of them was particularly likeable, though; Evie came off as a bit too modern for her time, and the two Victorian women were a bit too juvenile for my taste. As a result, I got bored pretty quickly; there’s nothing much that made this novel particularly enjoyable for me, so I couldn’t finish it. Still, I thought the idea was good, especially with the contrast between the Sepoy rebellion in one story and the end of the British Raj in the other. But if you want a much better, more authentic telling of the Sepoy rebellion, I’d recommend MM Kaye’s The Shadow of the Moon.
Review by nicx27
I read and reviewed this book as part of the Transworld Book Group.This is a lovely tale of India around the time of partition in 1947, and also in a time of unrest in 1857. A dual time narrative story, and one in which, unusually for me, I preferred the older story to the more recent one.Evie Mitchell, her husband, Martin, and their young son, Billy, have moved to India so that he can carry out research. Martin is deeply troubled by his experiences during World War II and their marriage is suffering as a result. When Evie finds letters hidden in the wall of their rented bungalow it takes her on a journey of discovery, both about the events of 1857 and also about her own situation.The 1857 story was fascinating to me. It involved two friends, Felicity and Adela, women doing their own thing in India. I loved all the letters and journal entries that formed this part of the book, and how that story was tied up in the end. The 1947 story was also good, although Evie's voice, as the narrator, didn't quite ring true, both for the period and also the way she came across sometimes. Billy was also very precocious for a five year old, and I don't think his voice was entirely convincing either. I must admit to being irritated by the number of pet names he had!I love books set in two different times, where there is a mystery to unravel, and this is one of those books. I felt the setting was very evocative, with the sights, sounds and smells being described very well. I believe the author visited India and saw it first-hand and I think it showed. On the whole this was a good read, and one which kept me interested all the way through.
Review by readingwithtea
“Death steals everything but our stories.”It’s the story of Evie Mitchell, who is in India with her husband in 1947. Martin is documenting history in action during the Partition on a Fulbright scholarship; Evie keeps herself making their little bungalow spotless and teaching English to a few local children. One day, she finds a concealed bundle of letters hidden away in the wall of the bungalow. While she can’t interpret very much of them, the reader is given access to a second storyline – the tale of two girls raised as sisters. Felicity leaves Adela in England and makes her way back to India where she was born (and where we know she will leave the letters).I adored this. It seemed to be just the right mix of exotic lands, adventure, mystery and family life/romance/interpersonal conflict to tick all my boxes. (Other recent successes in this vein – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Bel Canto) And the language! A brief selection of quotes for you:On the discovery and investigation of some ancient letters: “The letters were personal, and trying to fill in the blanks felt like peering into these people’s lives uninvited. I struggled with a brief pang of guilt before reminding myself that the letters were dated 1854 and the people concerned were long past caring.”On marriage: “I remembered when we had shared joy as easily as breathing” “That was the beginning of us being smashed and remade with something of the other in each of us” “I’d lost my best friend and I missed him like fire.”On Catholicism: “It occurred to them that my Catholicism might seem as arcane to them as their Judaism did to me. For me, the pageant of Byzantine robes and chanting in a dead language, the drama of tortured martyrs, virgin birth and crucifixion had been worn thin and made bland by repetition.”And one of my favourite little comic moments (for reference – Evie has only just discovered that Habib speaks English):“‘Oh, Mr Mitchell doesn’t care for eggplant.’‘Of course not, Madam. Eggplant is a useless vegetable. A mistake I am making with this vegetable. I will take back. The merchant should not even be selling such useless vegetables, isn’t it?’‘But last night you said eggplant was the king of vegetables.’Habib regarded me with pity for not understanding something so simple. ‘Madam,’ he said, ‘for you I am working, not for the eggplant. What good would it be doing me to be disagreeing with you and agreeing with the eggplant?’” The dual storyline worked very well here (of course the strands are united at the end, but not as I thought they would be), much as in Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine. I loved the Victorian characters, although my loyalties flickered back and forth between the two Victorian girls. Newmark has clearly done her research carefully and it shows. In the 1947 thread, I wasn’t much of a fan of the husband, but Evie was wonderful – impulsively adventurous, a sweet and loving mother, a young wife struggling in a marriage that is no longer the one she entered, determined to see India and experience it properly, unlike the colonial wives at the Club, with their trifle and cricket matches and G&Ts.Evie could be slow sometimes too (annoying, in one who was supposed to be so smart). The conflict is well built and perpetrated, and the scenes with Evie and her son are sweet, but I was a bit disappointed in the resolution to the conflict – it seemed so flat suddenly.But occasional ditzy moments from Evie and Martin’s sullenness were the only things tempering my very positive feelings about this charming cross-temporal and continental adventure.
Review by elkiedee
I'm part of the Transworld Book Group!Soon after WWII, an American family moves to India. Jewish-American Martin has returned to his studies in Indian history after fighting in Europe, and has won a Fullbright Scholarship to continue his research there. Britain is preparing to grant Indian independence, including partitioning the country into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, and the family are staying in a village near Simla, near the proposed borders. Martin will be documenting the end of British rule.Martin's wife Evie and their 5 year old son Billy come too, and Evie tells us her story in a first person narrative. She is keen to participate in a new adventure, and anxious to hold on to her marriage to a man troubled by his recent experiences. She finds a cache of letters between two women, written in the 1850s, and gets caught up in the story of two very close friends, Adela and Felicity - the letters leave Evie with some huge questions and she sets out to find out the answers. The story of Adela and her friend Felicity is told partly through the letters but also in a third person narrative. I found both the 20th and 19th century stories interesting. I really like historical fiction and having several stories (and time periods) revealed in one novel is a bonus. The Sandalwood Tree is nearly 500 pages, but it is a quick and engaging read.India in the novel is portrayed through the perceptions of two Western women, 20th century American Evie and 19th century English Adela. Evie describes in some detail the appearance of the rented bungalow that is to be the new family home and the surrounding village, and people including servants, their Indian landlord and some English colonials. Elle Newmark also describes the food that Evie and Martin eat, having decided to try to eat Indian food rather than the English nursery food the British colonials have.I found the 20th century story more memorable than the 19th century one, but the 19th century story is a moving and emotional tale of rule-breaking romances including lesbian relationships. However, Evie's first person narrative has more immediacy and is more dominant in the novel.I liked Evie's character a lot, open minded, always looking for a way to relate to the variety of people she meets, and anxious about having servants and about offending them. I do have some reservations - I don't believe a white American couple, even one in a mixed marriage (Evie is from a Catholic background, would have been quite so liberal and anti-racist in their outlook and I think maybe the author modelled Evie and her attitudes a little too much on herself. The best historical fiction involves engaging with the mindset of the time - even unconventional and rebellious characters will still be influenced by their society.Although she doesn't quite get under the skin of her characters, this is a terrific easy read and I really enjoyed it.An extra bonus in the edition of the novel I read is an interview with the author in which she discusses the historical fiction genre, the factual background of her story and the history of Partition, religious divisions in India, Indian food, travel and living in different places, and the Jewish uncle who fought in Europe in WWII. I love to know about writers' thoughts and influences for their writing. This is also valuable because sadly Elle Newmark died earlier this year - she was struggling with the disease that killed her while writing this novel, her second.Thank you to Transworld for sending me The Sandalwood Tree to review as part of their Challenge.