Reviewed by Danielle Pullen
London 1957. In a bid to erase her past, Sophie Schofield accepts a wedding proposal from ambitious British diplomat, Lucien Grainger. When he is posted to New Delhi, into the glittering circle of ex-pat society, old wounds begin to break open as Sophie is confronted with the memory of her first, forbidden love and its devastating consequences. This is not the India she fell in love with ten years before in a maharaja's palace, the India that ripped out her heart as Partition tore the country in two.
And so begins the unravelling of an ill-fated marriage, setting in motion a devastating chain of events that will bring her face to face with a past she tried so desperately to forget, and a future she must fight for. This is a tender story of love, loss of innocence, and the aftermath of a terrible decision no one knew how to avoid.
Sophie Schofield, the daughter of a doctor to the maharaja, leads an idyllic childhood growing up amongst the prosperity and palaces of Delhi. All is seemingly perfect but this is a very adult world and Sophie is relieved when she makes a friend in Jag, the son of a palace servant. However, they must keep their friendship a secret as they come from opposite sides of the cultural divide.
Skip forward ten years and Sophie is back in London and she has agreed to marry a diplomat, Lucien, who is posted to India. This sends Sophie into turmoil. Can she face returning to the secrets of her past? Will she come face to face with Jag? Has she really moved on from the events of her childhood and her first relationship?
Under the Jewelled Sky is Alison McQueen’s second novel. A strength of the book is her insider knowledge and ability to draw on some of her own life and family experiences to create a sense of place. In the early part of the story, she describes the opulence and division in the maharajah’s home and this was certainly compelling. In addition, the characterisation was generally strong with Lucien especially stirring some strong feelings.
All of the elements of a good story are here but there are some issues which prevented me from truly engaging with this novel. There are two conflicting elements to this novel; the narrative and the research. When McQueen focuses on the narrative, this novel is successful. However, there are sections where it is clear she is providing description and contextual background. These sections feel like ‘research’ and are not fully integrated within the story. This gave the writing a disjointed feel and meant that the reader tends to lose interest and drift away from the narrative.
Some novels feel as if you speed through the pages, with the end coming almost before you are ready. This was definitely not the case with this novel. I certainly felt as if I had read a significant work by the end. Having said this, however, the narrative’s speed does increase in the final quarter and the style of the work is interesting once you become familiar with the location and the protagonists.
Overall, this is an interesting read. I learned much about India’s history and the experiences of the indigenous population and the colonisers at a very significant point in history. As an entertaining read, this is a novel that requires a little perseverance.