Sunday, 1 November 2009
Zemindar - Valerie Fitzgerald
Wearying of conspiracy theory thrillers that find mystery, violence and shadowy secret societies in every corner of ancient and medieval history, sick of books that are promoting themselves as 'better than Dan Brown', and heroes that can jump out of planes while simultaneously machine gunning the bad guys and doing spiralling somersaults, I returned to my bookshelf for some nostalgia, for a book I had read many times and enjoyed each time.
Zemindar is Valerie Fitzgerald's story of a young lady called Laura Hewitt, who is sent to India as a companion to her beautiful, spoilt cousin Emily. Emily has recently been married to Charles Flood, a man that Laura loved and believed would be her husband. The object of the journey was to visit Charles's fabulously wealthy brother Oliver, the Zemindar of the title, on his vast estate of Hassanganj.
Laura is immediately intrigued by all that India has to offer, and starts to learn the language and its customs. The party arrives in Calcutta and is introduced into British Indian society and then moves to Lucknow to stay with the Averys, a couple who are troubled by alcoholism and gambling debts. The cracks are already appearing in Emily and Charles's marriage, and Laura finds it hard to leave her feelings for Charles behind her as Charles starts to confide in her.
A meeting with Charles's elusive half-brother Oliver, leads to an invitation to visit the estates of Hassanganj and gives Laura a chance to see even more of the real India. However, it is Laura that Oliver is interested in, not his previously unknown sibling, and a budding attraction grows between the pair. Against a backdrop of growing troubles in India that threaten to overspill, Emily finds herself pregnant and it is amid the dramas of the birth of her child and the tensions between the adults that the tragedy that was the Indian Mutiny starts to encroach on their lives.
Laura, Charles, Emily and the baby find themselves caught up in the horrors of the Siege of Lucknow, while Oliver who had parted from them to care for his illegitimate daughter, finds himself trapped in the flimsy entrenchments of Cawnpore and the hellish aftermath of the massacre of the British prisoners on the river.
Will Oliver survive to find Laura again? Will Laura be able to let go of her supposed love for Charles to fully embrace Oliver's love? Will they survive the guns, the hunger, the disease and the filth of the siege?
This is a sweeping historical romance that is set against the backdrop of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It outlines some of the causes and reasons why the Mutiny occurred, and is even handed when apportioning blame. While Laura and her British companions suffer great hardship and dangers, the book also shows the suffering of the Indian population, both those that supported the Mutiny and those that stayed loyal to the British.
It is a long book, and at times a harrowing book. So get the biggest box of chocolates that you can lay your hands on and a huge mug of tea. It is a book that is a perfect escape on a wet Sunday afternoon to another time and place, to a land of dazzling wealth and opulence and grinding poverty. To a time where horrific cruelty was counterbalanced by incredible humanity and courage on both sides.