Book Review: East of the Sun, Julia Gregson
(You can also read this review at the über glamboyant site of Sassi Sam)
Before I even opened the front cover, I made a hasty, snap judgment that I wasn’t going to like East of the Sun based on three factors:
- It’s set in the 1920s and I normally prefer modern fiction.
- It’s set in India I just read a book set in India.
- The cover bored me to tears (spare me the philosophical cliché; whether it’s a book or a bottle of wine, if it it’s pretty it’s got my dollars)
As I began the first few chapters (which, begrudgingly, are short and neatly packed and so very convenient for those of us who have to slot our non-digital literary indulgence into small pockets of time), I started to think about how I was going to write an honest review on a book I disliked that was fair and didn’t gratuitously criticise the writer.
Even though, let’s face it, she deserved for writing about such dull, unrelatable, times-of-yore subject matter:
Three British women travel by sea to India in 1928. Rose is a beautiful but naïve bride-to-be, anxious about leaving her family and marrying a man she hardly knows. Victoria – her bridesmaid – couldn’t be happier to get away from her overbearing mother, and is determined to find herself a husband. And Viva, their inexperienced chaperone, is returning to her childhood home to claim a trunk left to her in the wake of the deaths of her parents and sister. They are accompanied by a dark and disturbed teen boy who is on his way to live with his parents after ten years away from them at school in England.
But, a funny thing happened on the way to this review. I became immersed in the storylines and a little captivated by the proposition of prim and proper English ladies and gentlemen living in complex, raw and colour-splashed India.
The novel is set in the Ghandi era; a time of growing civil unrest toward British imperialism in India. Each of the protagonists has their own reason for leaving Old Blighty and none of them are in any way prepared for the dangers, duties and disappointments that lie ahead.
Historically, in 1928 England, women were given the right to vote on the same terms as men yet socially, were still regarded as spinsters if they weren’t married at 19. It must have been a confusing time. Some women relished the opportunity to stand up, be counted and make their mark on the world as individuals while others were more content – or persuaded – to sit pretty, sipping tea (or gin) and gossiping while the men-folk mastered the universe.
There were times reading East of the Sun when I felt like shaking some sense into the female protagonists for being so ignorant/spoiled/selfless/bullish. However, Gregson gave adequate insight into the inner workings of each of them so I was able to understand – and, when necessary, forgive – their limitations.
Two of the biggest issues Gregson explores throughout her story are identity and self-acceptance. At some stage, each of the characters must face life as an outsider and is left to resolve whether their place in the world is determined by their environment, their heritage or their deeds. The book also questions whether it is better to play by the rules to appease the expectations of others or to bravely live by one’s own needs, goals, desires and conscience.
And who, today, could possibly relate to that?
Available now: Hachette RRP$22.99