Published by Penguin UK, 23rd February 2017, 416 pages, £7.99
I am an avid follower of Dinah Jefferies, thanks to The Tea Planter’s Wife and even more so after the beautiful The Silk Merchant’s Daughter. Before the Rains is another installment about a plucky young woman overcoming personal struggles during the tumultuous period of her exotic setting and, of course, getting swept by a complicated romance.
Its 1930, Rajputana, India, Eliza Fraser is a young widow and aspiring photojournalist with the first big job of what she had been told was an impossible career. She is sent on behalf of the English Government to an Indian princely state to capture images of the royal family, the first ever English woman to enter its impenetrable palace walls. Having lived in India as a young girl, she has a soulful connection to the country which only blossoms when she meets Jay, the Prince’s handsome and distant brother. Eliza enters the palace carrying her unresolved problems related to her father’s death in India, consuming guilt over her husband’s death and the alcoholic mother she left in England. Meeting Jay, who begins by being attractively disagreeable, helps her uncover mysteries of her past but throws her into a buffer position, having to navigate between England’s controlling grip and the might of Indian monarchy.
I wasn’t absorbed in this story as much as I was with Silk Merchant, the premise was not as heart-poundingly gripping for me. There is no question that the author delivers another vivid time portal, a VR version of prose. She captivates the reader’s senses with stunningly rich descriptions that read smoothly rather than in dense clumps. For about a week, I was in 1930s India, walking the shadowy halls of the palace with Eliza and smelling cardamon or riding into the dusty landscapes with Jay.
Yet the main structure of the plot was predictable but not in a comforting and satisfying way. The way events unfolded were far-fetched and felt more like the author connecting loose dots to summon meaning about fate and destiny. Some of the other characters felt like soap-opera stereotypes- the evil royal advisor, the long lost sibling. The relationship between Eliza and Jay had its sweeping and heady moments, but its whole appeal was of a forbidden romance guarded by race and ancient laws, hardly something memorable and absorbing.
Many thanks to Penguin for my review copy, eagery awaiting another Dinah Jefferies world xxx
Published by Hodder & Stoughton, 31st Jan 2017, 416 pages, £6.99
Remember it’s only a game
I was very impressed with this absolute star of a debut. It’s juicy, mind-twiddling plot made me feel like I had entered one of my dreams. This is a story about Scarlett and Tella, two oppressed young sisters living in fear of their abusive father. Ever since she was a child, Scarlett had wanted to join the spectacular show called ‘Caraval’. This is a once in a year mystery game where the audience take part, gathering clues and interacting with actors to solve it. This game is so popular that participants have to be invited to play by the elusive game-maker ‘Legend’, who is surrounded by a smog of rumours and scandals. The show also has a reputation of danger and excess when players become too involved and forget that it is all fake. There is also a connection with ‘Legend’ and Scarlett’s family and a secret involving the mother that left them-another reason why Scarlett longs to be closer to Caraval.
Scarlett’s long awaited invitation finally arrives, at a time when her father’s tyranny is on full steam. With the help of a dashing but strange sailor Tella befriended, they both manage to escape. But as soon as they arrive at ‘Caraval’, Tella goes missing. Scarlett soon discovers that her sister is the mystery of this season’s game, with Scarlett desperately wading through an unreal world to find her. As she becomes more involved in the game, she too believes in its reality. She begins to piece together links to her family history and fears for her sister’s life. As stabs of danger begin to threaten her, I also started to take the game seriously.
Julian, the mysterious sailor, is not only heroic, charming and kind. He is unpredictable, untrustworthy, which means he is undoubtedly exciting. He has an intensity and sensitiveness that irrevocably attracts Scarlett, despite her base instincts. He alone stays by her side throughout the game and becomes a pillar of support through the madness. However, the more Scarlett opens her heart to him, the stranger his character becomes and the more involved he is with the game.
The setting of ‘Caraval’ felt like a recurring sub-conscious about being lost or trying to find something that’s always out of reach. The author was spot on with the irrational trickling of time- sometimes speedy, sometimes painful, like walking through honey. Tella was always frustratingly in the distance but never fully seen. Events unfolded like a slow moving kaleidoscope with strange characters popping up and then melting away. This is by no means a chaotic sequence of plot. The author controls and contains the game enough to lure the reader with keyholes of revelation. But just when Scarlett gets close to unmasking a clue, it changes. It keeps morphing right to the ending sentence, just when we think the game is over, a new one has begun.