Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Sandalwood Tree - Elle Newmark

I have read and reviewed this novel as part of the Transworld Book Group Reading Challenge.

This is a beautifully written, enjoyable to read, dual timeframe novel. In 1947, Evie  travelled from Chicago to India with her historian husband Martin and young five year old son Billy. Martin is on a Fulbright scholarship to study the last days of the British rule in the region. Their marriage is on rocky ground since Martin returned from serving in WWII a changed, quieter man, and Evie hopes things may improve for them once they are in India, and that he may open up and share the dreadful wartime experiences that he evidently keeps locked within. Hidden in their cottage, Evie discovers the remains of some letters between two English women, dating from just under a hundred years previously, who themselves were occupants of this cottage in Masoorla.

So begins the other half of the story, featuring Felicity Chadwick and Adela Winfield, set in the 1840s and 1850s. We learn, through remnants of letters, and journal entries made by Adela and found by Evie, what happened when these two Victorian women met as young girls in England, formed an incredibly close bond, and found themselves both together again in India, looking to live their lives unconventionally, with joy and adventure. Evie becomes entranced by the mystery of these two women from the past, who, like her, traveled to India and experienced the unfamiliar culture. She looks into their story, as she finds further clues and the tale unfolds, as a distraction from her troubled relationship with her husband. The stories that Evie uncovers from the past enlighten her as to what really counts in the present.

I really enjoyed this lovely read, with a well-developed and cleverly intertwined storyline. It has such a strong sense of place and is rich with period detail evoking the vibrant, varied colours, spicy foods, diverse smells, intense heat, terrible poverty and suffering, inequality, and the many ways of life in India as these incomers experienced it then. Whilst reading I myself felt as if I was immersed in the place and I was engrossed in the tale throughout. I was very interested to learn aspects of India’s, and the regions’ past through the eyes of these characters, in particular Evie, whose first-person accounts bring us close to her everyday experiences. The author captures the country at a time of unrest and change, with Partition on the horizon, and many millions of people with an unsettled, uncertain future. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next in both parts of the story. It is a vibrant novel, which contains mystery, tells of love and passion that is against the accepted norm of the times, of despair and hope in a relationship that has faltered and needs repair, and introduces the reader to a wonderful and vivid landscape. I could imagine fans of Kate Morton’s novels, amongst many other readers, very much enjoying this book.

At the end of the novel, there is an insightful interview with the author, who details her research and trips to India, and it is evident that she put a lot of effort into authenticating her story. I was sad to learn that the author has recently passed away, a talent lost, but this marvelous novel will endure. The words she wrote and attributed to Adela in the novel are so true for her too, that ‘death steals everything but our stories.’


  1. Thanks for your review. I haven't heard about this book but it sounds like a good one. Not my usual kind of read, but it's nice to change things up every so often.

  2. Hi Aimee, thanks, it's a bit different for me too and I was pleased with how much I actually got into it.


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