Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Eden Gardens, Calcutta, the 1940s. In a ramshackle house, streets away from the grand colonial mansions of the British, live Maisy, her Mam and their ayah, Pushpa.
Whiskey-fuelled and poverty-stricken, Mam entertains officers in the night - a disgrace to British India. All hopes are on beautiful Maisy to restore their good fortune.
But Maisy's more at home in the city's forbidden alleyways, eating bazaar food and speaking Bengali with Pushpa, than dancing in glittering ballrooms with potential husbands.
Then one day Maisy's tutor falls ill. His son stands in. Poetic, handsome and ambitious for an independent India, Sunil Banerjee promises Maisy the world.
So begins a love affair that will cast her future, for better and for worse. Just as the Second World War strikes and the empire begins to crumble...
Eden Gardens is the début novel from Louise Brown set in Calcutta in the 1940's - a time of great change, turbulence and unrest for the people of India. The cover for this book evokes a great sense of time and place as India was on the brink of change, of gaining its independence from Britain. Although to achieve this the country and its people had to go through times of hardship and struggle before they could acquire their much longed for freedom. The Eden Gardens of the title is the park where our main character Maisy goes to walk and think things through as she goes through a very tumultuous period in her life.
I love books with a dual narrative and I had only previously read one or two books set in India so I was interested to see could the author bring this important time to life vividly through her writing? For the most part she pulled it off even if at some points the story did flag somewhat before picking itself up again. Some books using the dual narrative work seamlessly flowing between the two characters whereas in others one of the characters has a slightly more weaker plot than the other. Here the story is told from two female perspectives that of Maisy born in India to a British mother and father and that of her ayah (nanny) Pushpa. It was brilliant to read of the same scenes unfolding but from different viewpoints. Although admittedly I did find Maisy's chapters slightly edged out the sections from Pushpa's outlook. As I began reading Eden Gardens I fervently hoped that everything I love about historical fiction would be between the pages of this book.
It did take me a while to settle into this story as we meet Maisy and her mother, it was difficult to familiarise myself with the characters and with what was going on. But from the outset you could sense that Maisy and her family have not had an easy life in Calcutta. Her father died when she was young and it is only now that things are becoming apparent. That maybe her parents marriage was not all that she thought it was as a young child. This book lays everything out bare with no hiding away from facts. The harsh realities the characters faced are evident for all to see with at times graphic details. This book is not like the TV programme Indian Summers highlighting the glory days of the British in India. Instead we are shown the opposite side of the coin, a family who are not high up in society and enjoying all the delights India had to offer.
Eden Gardens is set during World War Two and yes it does infringe upon Maisy and her mother but more importantly the days of British rule in India are coming to an end so Calcutta is not a safe place to be for British people. No matter even f you have been born there and have ran through the streets as a child experiencing the heat, noise, smells and hustle and bustle of a great country. Maisy does not live in the rich, sumptuous areas of the city.I nstead she inhabits a small apartment with Pushpa and her mother amongst all the squalor, dirt and tiny huts the locals are forced to live in. Her mother is not a person who goes out to work everyday at least not in the regular sense. Her mother still deeply misses her husband and indulges in more than one or two drinks while a series of men come and go from the apartment. This is not the mother Maisie remembers as she was growing up when her father was alive. Therefore Maisy becomes a survivor because if her mother won't or can't control of their future well then she is the only one left.
Maisy's mother is too wrapped up in herself. Maisy roams the streets and does not go to school so a tutor is brought to the house and it is the son of this tutor that catches Maisy's eye and eventually her heart. Sunil will go on to be a definitive person in Maisy's life and will forever have a hold over her. There is a deep tangible connection that can't be broken. But Sunil is a man of great strength and firmly believes the British should leave India and even if the means of achieving this bring terror and destruction to the streets of Calcutta then so be it. Maisy was a person who you liked on one page and then the next her actions made you think what on earth is she doing? Can she not see the situation she has placed herself in? I'd love to say she was strong throughout but the strength she has is rather a gritty determination to see that the best is done for her family but the way she goes about this is not what I thought she would do on first meeting her. It is up to her to make sure her family can continue to live in India and an extra surprise puts further pressure on her to make things all right. There are people relying on her and meeting Gordon MacBrayne a Scottish businessman who supplies materials to the army changes her life. But I did feel she took an easy option instead of following her heart. On the other hand I suppose you could say she had no other choice as her family were down in the gutter and constant suffering was around the corner. Life turns out good with Gordon or so it seems but as the British hold over India begins to unravel so does the life Maisy thought she had built even though her heart had always still firmly remained with someone else.
As I have said the story is also told from Pushpa's perspective and I have to say reading of her childhood was excellent. Even if overall Maisy's chapters were just slightly better. Pushpa had come from a family of tenant farmers and we discover she lost everything when the worst storm ever hit. The scenes describing this storm were vivid and harrowing and I could picture everything so clearly in my mind. It left me bereft that she was forced to leave everything she had known and partake in an arranged marriage that was to be cruel and unloving. From here we follow Pushpa and her story until she begins work for Maisy's family and the author did not for one minute shy away from the harsh realities Pushpa had to face even still when she was living and working with Maisy. Puspha really was an incredible character. She was loyal and devoted to Maisy and only wanted to see the best outcome for her. Like myself she didn't approve of some of the Maisy's actions but could see she had no other choice. Pushpa was more of a mother to Maisy than her own natural mother and tried to prevent Maisy from seeing what was really going on. Their lives were not that of the British who lived in the rich colonial mansions. Alcohol, drugs, prostitution and poverty were there for the reader to see and it was handled extremely well throughout the novel. Reading from both Maisy and Pushpa's mindsets was intriguing because we read of the same situation but I never who quite to believe. Their opinions regrading Maisy's actions were so different but at all times Pushpa remained devoted and defended Maisy right to the bitter end. No more so demonstrated than in the final heart breaking scenes.
Not once does Louise Brown hold back with her descriptions of the downfall of the British empire in India. At times the descriptions were repulsive and harrowing but it all needed to be in the book. It made it clear that everything wasn't a bed of roses and this image of the glory days of the British as portrayed in other books and TV programmes was not in fact what happened towards the end. It was bloody and brutal and Maisy had her role to play. She puts herself in the ultimate danger many times over because the love she has inside her is so strong and powerful that only through finding the answer and the person she seeks that this longing and urge will be satisfied. So many times Maisy was down and out very near to the gutter but for the sake of her family she picks herself up because she knows her mother is in no position to do so. If she does nothing than they more or less would just stop and lay down and die. With Pushpa by her side Maisy continues on even if there was brief period when everything went a bit lacklustre and I thought is this it.Is this how everything will pan out even though I knew there was more to come?
Eden Gardens built and built to a stunning conclusion. Yes the middle may have slacked off a bit but the ending more than made up for this. My heart was in my mouth and I felt the characters desperation and urgency. The last few pages were the best in the novel. The writing was perfect and conveyed so well the horror and fear because I certainly felt it too. Some may think the very end is a bit ambiguous where as I felt it was definitive and I was happy with how it all turned out. Louise Brown is certainly a talent to watch out for. The elements I enjoy in a historical fiction novel were here in abundance. I will be interested to see will she return to India for her next novel but I would also love her to try a time slip novel as I think she could do a good job of mixing the past and the present. Meanwhile Eden Gardens is a must buy.
Many thanks to Headline for my copy of Eden Gardens to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.