Reviewed by Victoria
Not only was this novel one of the most gripping, engrossing, heart-in-mouth novels I’ve read in 2015, it wins hands-down the most beautiful cover of the year, too. Yet so far there doesn’t seem to have been much mainstream press coverage of it, and this is just too bad. If you’d read it, I think you’d want to push it into the hands of family and friends too, so if you have any interest in historical fiction, in India during the time of the Commonwealth, in the First World War, in complex family stories, or indeed in absorbing storytelling, this is the novel for you.
Belonging opens on a dramatic note in Peshawar, India in 1907, as 12-year-old Lila climbs on top of a cupboard in order to peer through the fanlight in a door to watch her parents’ dinner party. Once the dishes are cleared, the tablecloth her mother has been embroidering is revealed to everyone seated there, and rather than the approval Lila was expecting, the sight of it results in catastrophe. While guests withdraw in horror, her beloved father leaves the room, shuts the door to his study, and shoots himself.
Lila is packed off to England, where she is taken in by her elderly and starchy Aunt Mina, and we go back in time as the narrative splits into three. Lila’s first person narrative, as she mourns the loss of her familiar life and grows up in a cold England she hates, is now complemented by the diaries of her father, Henry. These pick up his story in 1868 when he is still a boy and his Aunt Mina arrives from England to try and teach this motherless child some British manners. And then the narrative shifts to the letters home of Lila’s grandmother, Cecily, dated initially 1855, when she travels to India to marry a man she hardly knows who is much older than she is. Arthur is a Major in the British Army, a man who has lived most of his adult life in India already and has profound respect for his new country and the Indian soldiers under his command. But he is not adept at dealing with a new bride, who is still a silly young girl, untested and unable to imagine how much her life will change.
So we have three stories unfolding from three generations of the same family. What do we know already, then, from the moment those stories start? We know that Cecily will die while her son, Henry, is no more than a baby. We know that Henry’s marriage will turn out badly. We know that Aunt Mina has the unenviable task of bringing up the waifs and strays in her family. And we know that India will play many roles in the forthcoming narrative – a place of immense beauty and unthinkable violence, a place that may scar all who live there long enough to love or hate it, in a way that time may never resolve. Lila tells us that:
Hindus believe that when you cross the ocean – which they call the kala pani or black water – you lose your caste, and your caste defines your place in the world: where you belong and, ultimately, who you are. You become an outcast. My own experience, even though I am not a Hindu, tells me that this is true.
It’s a brilliant way to start a story because you have an inkling how things will turn out without knowing why or how these events will happen. What might have been confusing or muddled in other hands is in fact a miracle of clarity in Umi Sinha’s effortless storytelling. Of course it doesn’t hurt that she has a cracking story to tell; one that is horrific too, about the relationship between the British and the Indians over the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Arthur and Cecily will be caught up in one of the most terrible massacres in history, a string of revenge and reprisals all stemming from the way native Indians were treated. And then Lila’s story takes us into the heart of the Indian armies fighting for Britain in World War One, a perspective on this war that I had never come across before, but which urgently needs to be remembered. Running through the heart of this compelling story is a deep understanding of how the colonial experience affected all its participants. The British who grew to love India loved it as sincerely as the natives; but the strange transplantation of one culture into another created unimaginable damage, spread confusion and resentment, and struck at the roots of a whole generation’s sense of belonging.
Written with lucid, flowing beauty, this was a story I could hardly drag myself away from, and I’d find myself making excuses for postponing all my other tasks while I read just a chapter more. I didn’t know much about the novel before I read it, and hard as it is to believe, this is a debut author. An outstanding first novel: brilliantly structured, exquisitely detailed, completely engrossing.
Umi Sinha, Belonging (Myriad Editions: London, 2015). 978-1908434746, 320pp., paperback.
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