Reverse-Cinderella novel set in LONDON
Novel set mainly in Sumatra
17th April 2018
East of India by Erica Brown, novel set mainly in Sumatra.
Opening in 1940, when World War II is just impacting countries further afield, we meet Nadine, who is a wayward young woman in Benares, India. She has discovered her talent for Nautch temple dancing, which under the rule of Empire has been banned. These temple dancers have had to resort to sexual encounters to make ends meet. And it certainly wasn’t a skill to be learned by the white community in India. But Nadine isn’t truly white. Her father had a relationship with the woman she had known as her Ayah; Nadine was the child of that union and thus she is darker skinned than others in her community.
Her father despatches the irrepressible Nadine into the arms of an older man who becomes her husband and who takes her with him to his rubber plantation in Malaya. He is fairly brutal with her and uses her for his sexual needs. When the Japanese enter the war, the couple is forced to move on to Singapore and from there they flee with their friends on a boat. It eventually sinks, they are shipwrecked and taken prisoner on a tropical island by the Japanese, and transferred to a camp in Palembang, Sumatra. There Nadine is expected to serve the Japanese soldiers in the camp with her sexual favours.
This is a story set against the horrific backdrop of Japanese occupation, soldiers from the Land of the Rising Sun who, in the main, are violent and disparaging towards those captured in war.
Nadine, however, is a gung-ho and resourceful character who manipulates her situation for her own gain, whilst mindful of looking after the needs of the other women around her. She plots her future, with a lot of help from Lady Luck, and has to navigate many an atrocious event along the way.
To be honest, there were a couple of aspects that didn’t work for me in this story. The storyline is in many ways romanticised and the violence, harsh setting and treatment of prisoners slice through the narrative as a reminder that these are truly dreadful times. Rapes, killings, death and despicable acts, accurately told I am sure, don’t sit comfortably alongside the style of narrative. For example, I struggled to believe that Nadine, as her ship was listing and sinking, jumped overboard and then “sank deeply into a turquoise haze, its touch as cool as silk” – I personally would have been flailing around for my life, screaming, I imagine; or, that after washing up on the island, would the women really have had access to vanity cases and powder compacts? Crossing vast seas and withstanding the roiling waves in a tiny fishing boat also for me stretched credibility and felt like a fantasy from Life of Pi.
The characters weren’t fully developed and I felt I had little sense of Nadine by the end. The author is, however, interested in the role of race at this point in time – Chinese suffered terribly under the Japanese, and of course the main protagonist, Nadine is of mixed race and that is an issue that is brought up several time in different contexts as the story unfolds.
Overall I felt that a much firmer editorial hand could have coaxed this novel into something very good, the basis is absolutely there. As it is, it meanders a little too much and within paragraphs there are repeat descriptions of the same scene/event, which could have done with editing. The writing overall however is good.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
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