It opens with Juila protesting “I thought there would be pink marble palaces and dusty deserts and strings of camels to ride. Instead there is this,” and her sister Portia reproving her, “For heaven’s sake, Julia, don’t be difficult. Climb onto the floating buffalo and let’s be off.” But the so-called floating buffalo consists of several rather nasty-looking rafts made of inflated buffalo hides which ‘looked incredibly lifelike, as if the buffalo had merely rolled onto their backs for a bit of slumber, but bloated …’ “Julia, we are Englishwomen. We are not cowed by a little authentic local flavour.” Then their brother Plum joins in the quarrel, and finally Julia, ‘heartily sick of them both,’ says: “No more. Not another word from either of you,” and mounts the raft. “We are all of us above thirty years of age, and there is no call for us to quarrel like spoiled schoolmates. Now, let’s get on with this journey like adults, shall we?” And with that little speech, the raft sank beneath me and I slipped beneath the chilly waters of the river.’
Since the first sentence of the very first book, the opening lines of this series have been stunning. You are hooked at once. And as you see, this one lives up to our expectations, and continues to do so right through to the closing sentence – which I will not give you here!
What has happened is this: Lady Julia and her half-nobleman, half-gipsy husband are nearing the end of a long and idyllic honeymoon on the Mediterranean when her sister Portia and brother Plum catch up with them in Egypt and manage to persuade the reluctant couple of newly-weds to accompany them to India where the unlovable husband of Portia’s close friend Jane Cavendish has died, and Portia – for no particular reason, it seems – believes him to have been murdered. Now Jane is alone and out there in the foothills of the Himalaya, and expecting a baby.
All right, Portia’s woman’s intuition is something Julia is inclined to take fairly seriously, but it is not enough to make her and Brisbane abandon their earlier plans and accompany Portia and Plum to India. Not, that is, until Portia adds that Jane’s late husband’s huge estate and tea-plantation is entailed: it will pass to Jane’s son if she has a son, but if she has a daughter it will pass not to her but to the nearest male heir. Which means that if the husband was murdered then another murder is on the books. They go to India.
I enjoyed this story quite as much as I did the others and found the various Indian (and Anglo-Indian!) characters and its whole depiction of life in Victorian rural India completely convincing and understandable.
I also very much approved of and appreciated the quotations from Rabindranath Tagore which appear at the head of each chapter. Tagore was a wonderful writer (and a Nobel Prize winner) and Deanna Raybourn brings him to the attention of people who may never have heard of him. For any readers of this blog who are unacquainted with his work, let me quote here my own personal favourite lines, from his Gitanjali.
Here is thy footstool and there rest thy feet where live the poorest, and lowliest, and lost.
When I try to bow to thee, my obeisance cannot reach down to the depth where thy feet rest among the poorest, the lowliest, and the lost.
Pride can never approach to where thou walkest in the clothes of the humble among the poorest, the lowliest, and the lost.
My heart can never find its way to where thou keepest company with the companionless among the poorest, the lowliest, and the lost.
* * *
Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee! …
(Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali X and XI)