Book: East of the Sun by Julia Gregson
Looking for a good beach read? The kind of book that takes you to another world? East of the Sun by Julia Gregson makes for a great read for travel to the beach or mountains. I could not put it down. Read it in the car on the way to the mountains. Read it in a cabin by a blazing fireplace. And each time I opened the book, I traveled to India in the 1930’s–the beginning of the end of the British Empire.
Before I started this book, I was doubtful because it sounded too much like a romance novel–not my favorite. But as it turns out, the book, which I read as a review copy, really is a well-researched, riveting historical novel. While we get plenty of the war between the sexes, the author does not pretty up the story. Gregson is merciless in presenting the lives of three women as they would really have been, as passengers to India on the “Fishing Fleet.”
That was a new term to me, but makes perfect sense. During the time that Britain ruled India thousands of soldiers and civil service men were stationed there–many more than women. So women in Britain, hoping for a good match, shipped out to India. If they did not succeed, their English friends called them “returned empties.”
How did Gregson know so much about India when she never lived there? (She did visit several times and returned to explore places described in the novel). Her description of the genesis of the book from a publisher’s Q & A:
“When I was a child, our family rented the top floor apartment of a large and freezing country house in Hampshire that belonged to a woman called Mrs. Smith-Pearse. She’d gone to India, aged eighteen, as a member of the Fishing Fleet, married there, stayed for close to thirty years, and had only recently returned to England” and “Four years ago, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a box of tape recordings she’d made when she was very old. It was then I realized how hard her life had been in India, too.”
Gregson, a journalist, approached the novel like an article, and interviewed other women, including her mother-in-law, who had experienced the Fishing Fleet.
The book held my attention because I cared about the characters from the get go: Rose, the beautiful, tactful one; Tor, the impulsive one who worries about her weight; and Viva, trying to live independently and keep her feelings locked up. Gregson presents these three women so skillfully that we think of them as our own long-time girlfriends.
Here’s what the author has to say about the women upon whom they were based:
“…I try to imagine the terror and the thrill young girls would feel being sent half way across the world, often unchaperoned, to find a husband; to imagine the madcap speed with which some of them married; to think about the humiliation of failing and being shipped back home a ‘Returned Empty.’..East of the Sun is my raised glass to these women: to their friendships, their naiveté, to the men they loved, to the work they did, and for the price they paid in loving India.”
Because it focuses so strongly on women characters, I imagine that the audience for this book will be 98% female. My only complaint is that, while avoiding the gauzy curtain of romantic dreams throughout, the book seemed to me to come to a rather pat conclusion. But after finding so much enjoyment and learning so much about India, that does not deter me from recommending this riveting read to traveler’s to India, armchair or actual.
Photographs courtesy of the publisher.