I’d heard good things about The Book of Unholy Mischief, and I really enjoy books set in India, so when I had the opportunity to read Elle Newmark’s latest book, The Sandalwood Tree, for review, I was excited to do so. Published by Atria, The Sandalwood Tree will be out on April 5th.
About the Book:
Evie Mitchell and her husband, Martin, have just moved from Chicago to the small village of Masoorla, India, along with their young son, Billy. It’s 1947, and Martin has been granted a Fulbright Fellowship to document the end of Britain’s rule. Evie is excited, hoping their journey abroad will ease the tension that’s kept Martin and her apart ever since he returned from the battlefields of World War II.
While Martin digs into his work, Evie stays in their rented bungalow, taking care of Billy and slowly warming to the servants. One day, she discovers a loose brick in the kitchen wall. Behind it, she finds a small packet of letters between two young English women, Adela and Felicity, dating from the 1850s. Fascinated, Evie begins to watch for more clues about these former residents of her bungalow, allowing their story to absorb her.
Told by turns in Evie’s first person narration and the journals and letters of Adela and Felicity, The Sandalwood Tree spans nearly one hundred years, linking the three women through time in the space they shared.
The Sandalwood Tree called to mind for me Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours. The contemporary story, narrated by the main character, about piecing together a story from long ago, told through snippets and uncovered gradually, reminded me very much of Morton’s style. I found Newmark’s story easier to guess than Morton’s, but where uncovering the mystery is what seems to drive Morton’s books, I didn’t find it to be so central in The Sandalwood Tree. I didn’t mind being able to see ahead at points and enjoyed discovering I was right. However, I didn’t find The Sandalwood Tree to be nearly as gripping as The Distant Hours.
Newmark does a lovely job creating a sense of continuity with the bungalow inhabited by the three women. She links items in Evie’s rental with Adela and Felicity. Through letters and diaries, she allows Evie to discover when and why her home took on its current characteristics. History is very much alive around Evie in her temporary home. In these ways, Newmark establishes a connection between the women that goes beyond their shared status as female foreigners in Masoorla.
Newmark also keeps a nice balance of story lines going. Neither Evie’s nor Felicity and Adela’s story is overly straightforward or complex. I never felt bored, but I also never felt lost or overwhelmed. I think it can be difficult to keep two stories from different times balanced, especially when one is told through correspondence and journals. Newmark accomplished it well.
I think what I enjoyed most about The Sandalwood Tree was the glimpse it gave into two periods of the British presence in India: the 1850s and the 1940s. Both were tumultuous times in Indian/British history, with the Sepoy Mutiny (known in India as India’s First War of Independence) marking one and the impending Partition and the end of British rule the other. There are unique aspects to both times, yet what struck me were the similarities. Of course, both were times of unrest when it was potentially dangerous for foreigners to be in India. Beyond that was the precision with which the transplanted foreigners (mostly English) recreated the homeland they’d left. Furnishings, food, clothing, entertainment–these British transplants brought the culture they knew to India and hid from the reality of the country around them behind it.
The one complaint I had about The Sandalwood Tree worth mentioning is that I never found myself completely swept away by it. I enjoyed the story, the history, and, to some extent, the mystery, but I never had trouble setting the book aside, and I didn’t feel especially attached to any of the characters. I always felt there was a wall between myself and the book, like I was always reading from my 21st century apartment, never experiencing the story as it happened. That’s only a minor complaint, though, in an overall positive response.
On the whole, The Sandalwood Tree is an enjoyable book with some interesting history woven throughout. It will appeal to fans of historical fiction as well as novels set in India. Readers who enjoy books in which two story lines intertwine and Kate Morton fans will most likely find plenty to like in Elle Newmark’s latest novel.
Do you have a favorite book that weaves together two time periods in the same place?