Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long
Round about this time of year publishers, publicists and bookshops turn their attention to Holiday Reading or Beach Reads. Both these terms are somewhat pejorative and imply that books categorised in this way are light hearted, fun and not to be taken too seriously. Authors of such books are equally categorised as being A Good Read and the chances of an appearance on the Booker list, or any other for that matter, are more or less non-existent. Rosanna Ley’s previous two books, The Villa and Bay of Secrets have been marketed in this way. Bright covers, sometimes using water colours and vivid and attractive designs have been used, and certainly are guaranteed to catch the eye, be it in a local bookshop or in the special Airport editions which you can only get your hands on once you have been passed through security and declared trustworthy enough to travel.
I will be honest and say that these earlier titles, enjoyable though they were, did not impinge on my literary consciousness for very long and were left at the hotel or wherever I was staying for the next resident to pick up and read. However, the latest by this author, Return to Mandalay seems to me to be a leap forward from the aforementioned and has more depth and appeal and, therefore, needs more attention that hitherto.
Eva Gatsby is an antiques dealer. She has yet to find a job or a place in the world that really satisfies her and is delighted when her employers ask her to travel to Mandalay to verify the provenance of a purchase of artefacts about which there is some doubt. She has always had an interest in Burma, or Myanmar as it is now called, as her grandfather has had an abiding interest in the country and it is his stories and telling of the past that had fuelled her initial curiosity.
When he hears of Eva’s impending trip, Lawrence shows her an antique of his own, a chinthe, which he brought back with him on his return to England, and requests that she return it to its rightful owner.
Eva picked it up, looked for a moment into its iridescent, red glass eyes. It was a lovely piece, small and delicately carved in an eighteenth century style, it looked a bit like a wild lion with a jagged tasselled mane and fierce snarling face”
‘What is it you wish me to do Grandpa?’ she asked again.
Her grandfather stared at the little chinthe…’It’s a personal quest my darling’ and to her horror his eyes filled with tears
And so the story begins and we go back to the war years and learn of the time he spent in Burma and his meeting with Maya, the love of his life.
Eva’s journey to Mandalay is greeted with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by her mother, Rosemary. Deeply in love with her husband and devastated by his tragic and early death, her emotional withdrawal from her daughter while lost in the depths of grief has never really been mended. When, as a teenager, Eva decides to make her home with her grandfather after her mother’s eventual remarriage, this choice makes the situation worse and the estrangement from her mother continued into her adult life, the odd telephone call and email paying lip service to the mother/daughter dynamic. Rosemary harbours a deep resentment towards her father and his (and now Eva’s) interest in Burma which she sees as further evidence of the distancing of her daughter.
So on the surface of it we have a love story and a war story and it all sounds intriguing and of course, some skulduggery and cheating in the antiques world comes to the fore. Eva, whose own history of relationships is not a particularly happy one, sets off on a journey which she hopes will answer many questions about not only herself but her family history.
The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time, always a favourite device of mine, and also each narrative is seen from the character’s viewpoint. So we know how Lawrence met Maya, his war time activities in Burma and their deep abiding love for each other. We also see Rosemary’s viewpoint which I think is vital else the reader might have little sympathy for her, but in this way we get to know her and her insecurities and learn of the love she has for Eva and how she reconciles herself with her family.
Throw into the mix a hint of danger and mystery, the story of the chinthe and its origins, a handsome but mysterious hero, a tourist who Eva meets who may not be exactly who he says he is, an exotic background and you have a winner and a great read.
But at the heart of it all is the story of the love between Lawrence and Maya and how by the end of the book this love leads to the resolution of conflict and brings a peace and happiness seemingly unthinkable at the opening of the story.
I will confess to having a lump in my throat on several occasions when reading Return to Mandalay, not something that usually happens to me when reading a book which is obviously pitched to be read in the sun with Factor 30 and a pina colada to hand. The cover has a tag line ‘A gorgeous mouth-watering dream of a holiday read’.
Yes it is, but I think it is something more than that and I look forward to Rosanna Ley’s next novel with great anticipation.
Elaine Simpson-Long blogs at Random Jottings.
Rosanna Ley, Road to Mandalay (Quercus, London: 2014). 978-1782067627, paperback, 576pp.