Monday, February 3, 2014

UNDER THE JEWELED SKY by Alison McQueen: A Review

Sourcebooks Landmark, January 21st 2014
Paperback, 408 pages
Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction, Drama, Cultural, India
Rating 5 out of 5 stars
Buy it on Amazon

India, 1947

To Sophie Schofield, the maharaja's palace "was like a vast wonderland of exotic treasures, and she thought that even if she died and went to heaven, it could never be a paradise such as this." Young and only daughter of a British physician at the service of a local ruler, she had welcomed the change of scenery and climate, certainly more than her miserable and obsessive mother had done: a post-war air of gloom had descended upon her family back in England and, like her father, she had hoped that a relocation to India could have helped her parents save their marriage, have a fresh start and be a family again.

Of that  luxurious palace, Jag knew every stone like the back of his hand. Son of the maharaja's bearer, he was born within its walls and raised there since infancy. Handsome and elegant like a prince, he had enjoyed playing and being educated with the maharaja's children, but "he was the son of a servant, an important one he liked to think, but a servant nevertheless."

"There are a thousand places to hide in a palace, if you know where to look", hidden passages and secret gardens where the forbidden love between an Indian servant and a British girl blooms like an exotic flower concealed between the vines, rich in color and perfume, but with no hope to survive outside that secluded alcove, no hope whatsoever to be accepted by either family or society.

A wind of change is about to invest India, but the promise of freedom and independence won't grace Jag and Sophie's lives: with a civil war looming on the horizon and stiff social conventions redolent with disapproval, their inter-racial love affair has no future. Or does it? Ten years later, Sophie returns to India as the wife of an ambitious and philandering British diplomat: the "fairy-tale" country she had loved as a young girl has changed beyond recognition, but the intensity of that forbidden love hasn't and will have tragic consequences.

If you have a soft spot for narratives that draw you in exotic locales, moral codes and social settings of a distant time, then Under The Jeweled Sky by Alison McQueen will enchant you. A star-crossed love story set against the backdrop of the British expat circles during the mid-century political upheaval that tore India, McQueen's novel truly is an epic tale of love and loss: beautifully choreographed and flourishing with a wealth of sumptuous imagery and elegant prose, Under The Jeweled Sky unfolds with filmic perfection and a cinematic quality that is too startling to go unnoticed.

The author adds depth to the historical dimension of her work without weighing down its delicate thematic structure: avoiding that excess of anti-climactic details and social commentary that so often plague historical fiction, McQueen captures, in her stirring narrative, the essence, the dramatic scale, and the devastating consequences of the political turmoil that brought a mid-century India to its knees, with the unrelenting sense of drama and the timing of a 'shakespearean tragedy'.

If there is a trope that can be so aptly and so powerfully woven into the narrative fabric and wide scope of historical fiction, that is the 'star-crossed lovers', the 'thwarted love' story: in the capable hands of Alison McQueen, that sense of human tragedy that invested the Indian nation in the grip of a civil war, trickles down and affects every cell of society, tearing up territories, communities and families, along invisible lines drawn by power struggles between religious groups.  There is nothing like an unconventional love affair between two young, innocent lovers belonging to the opposite ends of the social spectrum, to render the magnitude of social and political conflicts typical of every era of transformation.

A heart-shattering and unforgettable read. 

***Review copy graciously offered by the publisher via NetGalley in return for an unbiased and honest opinion.
***Read my interview with the author and an excerpt here

About the author

Born in the sixties to an Indian mother and an English jazz musician father, Alison McQueen grew up in London and worked in advertising for twenty years before retiring to write full time. In 2006 she was selected from an impressive long list to join The Writers' Circle - a group of 8 top writers chosen to be groomed by the UK film industry as the new generation of British screenwriters. An award-winning blogger, she is also the author of a series of popular novels (published by Macmillan) under a pseudonym. Alison lives in a quiet English village with her husband and two daughters. Her novel, The Secret Children, was selected by The Independent for their alternative 2012 Booker list.  Learn more about Alison on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon.

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