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Historical novel set in 1930s SINGAPORE

28th September 2022

The Scent of Frangipani by Anjana Rai Chaudhuri, historical novel set in 1930s Singapore.

Historical novel set in 1930s SINGAPORE

Set in the early / mid 20th Century (mainly the 1930s), this is a transportive novel that will whisk you away to colonial Singapore. Young Clementine has been banished to the island from England, where her father has remarried (much to Clem’s annoyance) and she is now in the care of her aunt. She sees her environment through fresh eyes and they also alight upon Richard, the upcoming heir to a large rubber plantation, who has an artistic streak and does not relish the future that is mapped out for him by his parents.

The reader is also introduced to the story of Mei Mei who, after the death of her mother, finds herself in the home of her aunt and uncle. Her aunt dies through unnatural causes and Mei Mei has to stand trial, accused of poisoning her relative. The dynamics of the household shift and she finds herself in the role of a mui-tsai, a bondmaid, someone who basically slaves away others. This is certainly not the future that was promised to her. Richard has only eyes for her and manages to exonerate her of the spurious charges and soon she is living nearby. The Westerners frown upon a liaison between the incomers and the natives, and given she is only 15 when they meet, he is destined for a future of unrequited love, unless he can swing things his way.

The setting feels quite rich, you can hear the clanking of the ships in the port, the buzz of business around the city, and the author populates the narrative with multiple references to the smells – so many chapter openings flag the rich fragrances, the smells – and especially the heady frangipani scent – that permeates the heavy atmosphere of the colony,

The writing is quite formal, in an effort, no doubt, to capture the formality of the era, but it sometimes feels a little stilted and wooden, and sometimes I just couldn’t quite relate to some descriptions – for example, I cannot visualise what was meant by Eleanor Harrison’s “..boiled gooseberry eyes..”. The characters are not particularly well developed as they move through the story, and the ending was, for me, a little scatter-gun style. World events from the Great Depression, WW2 through to Japan’s invasion of the island city-state form a credible backdrop, setting the story in historical context.

The cover really didn’t grab me, it’s a bit twee and sugary, and it’s hard to read the title, even though the image has contextual significance for the storyline.

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