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Romance in Troubled Times
on 9 March 2015
Sophie Schofield travels out to India with her doctor father and vicious mother shortly before India's independence - her father has taken a job working for the Maharajah of a small state in the hope of making a fresh start post-World War II and saving his marriage. Soon after her arrival Sophie meets Jagaan ('Jag'), the son of one of the Maharajah's most trusted servants, and they fall passionately in love. But Jag is an Indian, expected to make a marriage within his own caste, and Sophie a British girl in an India where the British are beginning to leave - how can such a love end well? Ten years later, Sophie returns to India, as the wife of diplomat Lucien Grainger. She has tried to tell herself for years that the past is behind her, and that she's made a fresh start. But she can't forget Jagaan - or one other very important person, who she knew so briefly. Nor can she ignore the fact that her glamorous marriage is not turning out the way it should, and that Lucien is far from a good husband...
Alison McQueen's second book shows her growing assurance as a writer - it is far more focussed than 'The Secret Children', and there are less longeurs. As with 'The Secret Children', her knowledge and love of India comes across very clearly. McQueen's descriptions of independence and the subsequent riots and violence in India are superb, as are her accounts of the institutions that took in unwanted babies for adoption, and the confusion of the newly divided India of the 1950s (though at this time wasn't Pakistan divided into two parts, East and West Pakistan?). She's great at capturing the atmosphere of India, and I particularly enjoyed her account of the contrast of the poorer areas of the towns and the grandeur of the imperial palaces - plus the sheer boredom of life in the diplomatic service. The plot is well thought out too, with some surprising twists.
However, like Julia Flyte, I found the characters somewhat simplistic, which weakened the effect of the narrative as a whole. Too many of them - Sophie's philandering alcoholic husband Lucien, her violent alcoholic mother, most of the diplomats and their wives - were one-dimensional fools or villains, while Jagaan and his family and friends were all uniformly noble and honest. McQueen didn't devote enough time to exploring the characters of the young Sophie and Jag, so their passionate love (which I think we were meant to believe was based on physical attraction but also on more profound things) didn't really seem convincing, particularly as the young Sophie came over as so naive. I also found it odd that Jag, if he was so caring and noble, wouldn't have been more aware of the dangers of pregnancy for Sophie, or that Sophie (who as the daughter of a fanatically Christian mother must have known she was taking a major step in sleeping with Jag) wouldn't have known that she was deeply in love with him until he left. Later, I felt that Sophie would have been intelligent enough to have seen that Lucien was a nasty bit of work before marrying him, and that even if she hadn't Sophie's father would have picked up on his visit that things were badly wrong for the couple, and tried to help his daughter. But then - Sophie's father was a bit of a puzzle in various ways. I wasn't sure why he'd sent his daughter back to England alone in the early 1950s (when she had no relatives left there) or why he hadn't tried to trace Jag. McQueen, I felt, needed to spend more time on character motivation and in examining the nature of her characters - for too much of the novel they were like puppets manipulated to suit the plot. And (SPOILER ALERT) I'd have liked to know why and how Sophie ended up in the USA and how she survived there financially.
McQueen is definitely a talented writer, with a real ability to create a sense of place, and lots of interesting ideas. But I think she needs to build up the complexity of her characters considerably if she wants to make the leap from popular 'downtime' reading to more serious fiction. For me, this was an enjoyable but ultimately (bar some of the historical information on India) not particularly memorable read, in which I found the plot gripping, but was never sufficiently emotionally involved. Nevertheless, I would certainly read another novel by this author.