Reviewed by Emma Crowley
1930, Rajputana, India. Since her husband's death, 28-year-old photojournalist Eliza's only companion has been her camera. When the British Government send her to an Indian princely state to photograph the royal family, she's determined to make a name for herself.
But when Eliza arrives at the palace she meets Jay, the Prince's handsome, brooding brother. While Eliza awakens Jay to the poverty of his people, he awakens her to the injustices of British rule. Soon Jay and Eliza find they have more in common than they think. But their families - and society - think otherwise. Eventually they will have to make a choice between doing what's expected, or following their hearts. . .
Since Dinah Jefferies popped onto my reading radar just a few short years ago with her début The Separation I have been a huge fan of everything she has written. She is one of those authors whose books I will buy and read no questions asked as she has such a unique writing ability that takes you far and away to another time and place. At any given opportunity I always take the chance to champion her books as I believe she is an author not only fans of historical fiction will adore but readers in general will love her masterful stories. She is such a talented author writing absorbing stories which take hold of you within the first chapter and don't relinquish their grip until you read the last word having been on a thoroughly exhilarating journey with the characters.
I was thrilled when her book The Tea Planter's Wife was selected as one of the reads in the Richard and Judy Autumn 2015 book club. The selection was richly deserved and brought her phenomenal story telling ability to a much wider audience and therefore even more people can enjoy her books just as much as I do. Now Dinah has returned with another brilliant story thankfully without keeping her loyal readers waiting impatiently for too long with Before the Rains. This new story is set in India and again has the most beautiful cover, deeply evocative of the time and place. Soon within the first few chapters another spell-bounding, rewarding story unfolds and for me wrestles with The Separation as one of my favourite books from this author.
The story opens with a brief introduction, we are in Delhi in India in 1912 as a young girl watches a procession from the balcony of her home alongside her mother. Immediately a real sense of time and place comes across through the vivid imagery. I could easily picture the procession led by the elephants and the excitement as the crowd watches on, interspersed with the sounds and smells typical of an Indian city. But all does not go to plan, a bomb is thrown and the little girl finds herself fatherless. Reaching for her father in his dying moments will be an image that haunts this girl for a long time to come and she wonders will she ever be able to come to terms with it?
Eighteen years later Eliza is now returning to India after living in England for many years. She has been employed by Clifford Salter, a representative of the crown in India, to spend a year in an Indian fortress photographing the inner workings on a day to day basis of Indian royalty. This is a unique opportunity but memories will stir for Eliza and she questions whether she has made the right decision to return to a place which had such an impact on the shaping of her life? Eliza had always felt like she didn't belong in England and this feeling transferred to her marriage. But now she is a widow and free, yet in many ways she is still having to mould herself to the constraints of society, and being a widow in India is not easy. You would be frowned upon and treated as an outsider and some of the descriptions of what happened to Indian women left widows were horrific and unimaginable. But that is what happened at the time and if you are going to write a book set in another country and have undertaken immense research you can not shy away from the truth and in doing so the story is made more realistic and authentic and it helped to create a fascinating picture of everything Eliza experiences.
Through living at the fortress Eliza tentatively at first is witness to what goes on behind closed doors and she must be admired for her bravery as stiff opposition and many obstacles were placed in her path. Through such wonderful writing Dinah Jefferies paints a picture of such beauty tinged with the many rules and regulations for the people that live there especially the women. The descriptions of the castle seem otherworldly and made me realise what changes have occurred in the world in such a relatively short space of time. Gone are the glory days of the British empire in India yet the author brought them alive to perfection within the pages of this book.
Eliza came back to India for many reasons but the reader could see aside from the job she was employed to do her main priority was of rediscovering the part of her that she had lost/deeply buried the day she departed for England. She had had such a connection to India that she knew if she could immerse herself once again the person she longed to be may one day make a reappearance and she could come to some sort of happiness. Eliza views herself as different and that she should be able to roam free throughout the fortress to take as many photos as possible to gain a deeper insight into the mysterious lives of these people. The harem within the fortress seemed exotic and full of mystery, debauchery and many many secrets. But it is the matriarch of the family Laxmi who perhaps becomes a close ally to Eliza when one would think in fact the opposite would occur. I deeply felt Eliza's struggle to adjust to her new living situation and how she battled with wanting to experience everything in as free a way as possible but yet she was confined and stilted. Not even being allowed to roam free outside the castle walls without supervision must have felt so constricting. So when she encounters Jay, the son of Laxmi, a turning point happens. A spark is ignited which in society terms must never establish itself into a proper flame for that is not the done thing.
Jay exposes Eliza to a side of India she has never experienced before and it pained me that these experiences outside the castle walls that they shared together had to be kept secret for fear of bringing shame and disrepute on the family. It made me realise that affection that could with time develop into a deep love is never easy to achieve or let happen but if it is worth fighting for then one must do so. I loved the glorious descriptions of the adventures Jay took Eliza on. They brought to light the other side of India exposing old, banned rituals which have gone underground. It offered an insight into a part of India's history that I had never heard about but it was written in such a way as not to be overpowering yet the message the author was attempting to convey was clear for all to see and comprehend. Eliza understands she can't help the way women are treated but in some small way she can aim to expose the inequalities and try to put them right. Jay was totally as one with Eliza regarding this and I enjoyed how they both battled with what they could clearly see was wrong but bigger powers, history and tradition were at work and how can one go against something so deeply ingrained in the Indian culture?
Before the Rains had so many strands to the story that wove seamlessly together yet at other times they were separate entities but it all worked. I wondered why the author had chosen the specific title but the more I read it became clearer and I felt it was so beautiful yet added that sense of urgency to the situation Eliza found herself in. This book is not all a love story, it blends together history, romance and an element of mystery. The mystery aspect became stronger in the later half of the book as people who at first may have seemed nice and helpful truly began to play their cards. I never knew exactly what was going on and that is the way a book should be. The element of surprise and reveal should be kept secret for as long as possible. The reader should have many ideas in their head as to the final outcome for all elements of the story and that is what happened with me. I was surprised yet delighted with some of the final revelations and I was absorbed in this fantastic story until the very last chapter and was sad to leave such a strong courageous character as that of Eliza behind.
Dinah Jefferies has captured the spirit and sense of India to perfection in Before the Rains. Again it is another utter triumph from her and my only regret is that it couldn't have been longer for I knew once I finished I would have another wait for her next book which I hope she is hard at work on. If you haven't read anything by this author make sure you remedy this as soon as possible. In my opinion she is up there with Lucinda Riley as one of the greatest storytellers in recent years.
Many thanks to Viking publishers via NetGalley for my copy of Before the Rains to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.