I really enjoyed Elle Newmark's previous novel, The Book of Unholy Mischief. The Sandalwood Tree was my most awaited book this year. I am glad to say that it more than lived up to my expectations. The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark is an excellent read, the best book I've read this year, till now. I adore books involving long-ago secrets, mysterious letters, strong female protagonists and tragic love stories; this book offered me all of these and more. Needless to say, I LOVED this book! Yes, LOVED!
In 1947, Americans Evie and Martin Mitchell, along with their young son, move to Simla, a hill station in India. Martin, a historian, wants to document the events surrounding the end of British rule in India after a period of more than two hundred years. For Evie, following her husband to India is a last resort to save her marriage. However, Martin is still battling his horrific memories and dreams of the World War II. The Mitchells are mesmerized and quite taken with India. But 1947 is a turbulent time. The date of partition is approaching. The future appears dangerous as India is to be divided into two - a separate country called "Pakistan" is about to be created. Chaos and violence ensues due to the inevitable clash between Hindus and Muslims. Evie doesn't believe that the violence can touch the peaceful Simla and doesn't want to leave the country.
Martin and Evie, once so much in love, are now falling apart. All of Evie's attempts to restore her marriage fail. Her life looks bleak and lonely. Things change, as Evie comes across some hidden letters, written almost hundred years ago. She's drawn towards these letters, written by two Englishwomen, Adela and Felicity. As her marriage falls apart further and violence reigns over India, she becomes more and more obsessed with the mystery. The letters become her own little secret, her solace.
There are two story-lines running simultaneously - Evie's journey towards uncovering the secrets of the letters as well as Adela and Felicity's story. Entwined in all of this are two love stories that will stir you deeply. While Adela and Felicity's story is beautiful and heartbreaking, it's Evie's voice that I was drawn to the most. She's dissatisfied and desperate, lonely and unhappy. My heart went out to her.
The most captivating thing about The Sandalwood Tree is the author's enchanting, stunning portrayal of India, especially Simla. At first, I was quite doubtful about how the author would depict the most important year in Indian history. But Elle Newmark seems to have done so much of research. I learned things that I didn't know despite having studied History for four years in school (the major part of which encompassed the freedom struggle). I was transported to 1947 India and I could see everything through Evie's eyes. It's always interesting to read another perspective on the Partition and the freedom movement. I loved how objective the author was. Through Evie's voice, she has presented both sides of the argument- both the British and the Indian perspective. The description of Simla is especially enthralling - the way the author has described the Himalayas, the people, the bazaars and so on. I've been to Simla twice; somehow my interest in the place is rekindled and I can't wait to visit again. Of course, much has changed since 1947.
I've heard some horror stories of the Partition from my grandfather, as well as read about it; so I could relate to the events described in the book. We all know about the tensions between India and Pakistan, all going back to the Partition. I wonder - what if the division had not happened? I feel we gained as well as lost something in 1947. I'd prefer to have peace and friendship rather than the bitterness and prejudices that still prevail.
Evie, Felicity and Adela are such fascinating women, each different and yet connected. Their stories will mesmerize you and even make you teary-eyed. One of the most powerful aspects of the book, for me, is Evie's relationship with her son, Billy. Some of their scenes together really tugged at my heartstrings.
There were some minor problems I had with the book. There's a storyline that stops midway, which I wished the author had pursued further. Moreover, though I love Evie, some things she did really bothered me. Despite these, the good points outdo the few bad ones.
The Sandalwood Tree gives out some relevant messages about forgiveness, acceptance, love and happiness. Lush Imagery combined with characters that remain with you, make The Sandalwood Tree a memorable read. Beautiful and evocative writing brought to life the characters and the setting, creating a lingering effect in my mind.
Beautiful, compelling and heartrending story of three women during British India.
Highly recommended! If you love vivid imagery and "exotic" settings, this one's for you.