On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad
|On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: Following a mining accident that kills her brother, Adele takes up his scholarship at Yale. Prasad gives us a vision of a time and a place, as seen by some characters who almost certainly did exist and a few who never could have done. She speaks of bonds and the breaking of them. And she speaks of freedom. Not one for the action seekers, but a page-turner of a different class.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: January 2008|
|Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd|
Stony Creek, Connecticut is best known for... "not being known at all" Adele says, when she suddenly realises how close she has come to falling at the first hurdle. For Adele is about to penetrate one of the still-solidly all-male bastions of the United States... She has arrived in New Haven, she is going to Yale.
Of course, as a quarryman's daughter from Stony Creek, this isn't a strictly legitimate enrolment.
As the story starts Adele is living a frustrated existence in the Creek. Her father slaves away at the quarry as a stone-cutter. A job he genuinely enjoys although he finds time for other, unfulfilled, dreams. Her brother, Charles, is also working at the quarry - in the sheds - but only until he has passed his exams and, hopefully, won a scholarship: then he's going to college. Her mother is something else again.
She is of "cottager" stock - an expression that might have unfortunate connotations in British English these days, a "cottager" was a well-heeled, weekend visitor to Stony Creek, a person who maintained a "cottage" on the coast. "Cottage" itself still being something of a euphemism in this context since many of the properties were full blown mansions with grounds and private drives. Her life changed when she fell in love with, and fell pregnant to Gianno. He did the decent thing and married her. Her parents did the indecent thing and disowned her, all the same.
Conscious always of her superiority and refusing to acknowledge any shame, Gertrude stayed aloof from the quarry-folk. She earned her keep, blistering her hands red-raw washing other people's linen, but she kept her jewels and she studied with her son. He would be their way back to where she belonged. And Charles wanted it too... that way out of their life.
Daughter Adele was actually quite happy in herself... she could escape from her chores often enough to indulge her passion for books. Her father insisted both of his children would be educated - and learning came easy to his daughter. She listened in to Charles' lessons at home and learned ahead of him. Her father loved her dearly. Her mother largely ignored her.
Until the day the quarry whistle blows, long and hard...
The accident changes everything. Pa Gianno, and brother Charles, are killed...
... only Charles' scholarship to Yale is confirmed. So maybe there is a chance yet.
"Hair cropped and chest bound" (as the cover blurb puts it) our heroine takes her brother's name and his place and heads for New Haven.
What follows is gentle jaunt through the trials and tribulations of her first year of university. Brought up in the rough and ready ways of the quarry-folk, she falls in surprisingly easily with the young gentlemen students and soon has a group of firm friends... though relationships are inevitably complicated by her need for circumspection, and by secrets and worries that the boys themselves keep from each other.
Through the intake procedures, medicals, PE exams, dances and dramas, high-jinks and hard work "Charles" (or Adele) negotiates her freshman year. As a scholarship boy, she is obliged to undertake a work study programme, which brings her into contact with a questionable sociology professor - but also with his subjects who enrich her life and lead her to discover facets of herself that might otherwise lay hidden.
At it simplest, On Borrowed Wings is a coming-of-age story, given a simple narrative twist and a frisson of suspense by the substitution.
There is more to it than that... setting the tale in the 1930s puts it at the heart of the twentieth century, when everything was about to change.
In America the depression is beginning to bite; the changes in social standing as defined by wealth are being undermined and upset. The growth of Nazism and its eugenic ideals in Europe are encouraging the perversion of science. At the same time, lower down the social scale the notion of "freedom" is beginning to take hold.
We baby-boomers may think that the free-spirit is another invention of the 1960s - but it really emerged in its modern form between the wars. Women may not have yet all been demanding equal rights, but they'd finally got the right to vote and the next assault would be on education. Not just the right to an 'equal' education - but the same education. And employment - the same jobs, the same adventures, as men. The so-called weaker sex had got a taste for this (of necessity) during the Great War, and they weren't prepared to let it go. Those with ambition had the likes of Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson to look up to... women were doing stuff out in the world.
Adele doesn't have ambition, she just wants to learn, for its own sake... but that may change. And certainly her mother has ideas for her future.
In this context Prasad gives us a well-observed social history. Narrowed down to the world of Yale and New Haven, and the backgrounds of Adele's friends and tutors, it could have been claustrophobic and of limited insight, but Prasad finds ways to take Adele into the seamier sides of the university town... and mechanisms to show the harsh differences, and the glaring similarities.
And of course, on many levels, it is also a love story, or perhaps more properly an interwoven collection of love stories, plural. What kind(s) of love and how they play out is only to be discovered by reading.
I have never visited New Haven, but from my experience of traditional English university towns, and a visit to Hanover, New Hampshire (home of fellow Ivy Leaguer "Dartmouth College") I think I can vouch for the authenticity of atmosphere. Certainly of place, if not precisely of time.
In respect of the latter, Prasad's eye for detail in speech, in clothes, in the balance of naivety and savoir-faire scarcely misses a trick. She is equally convincing across gender, age, and class.
For a book of understated elegance, and gentle story-telling, On Borrowed Wings is surprisingly gripping. To what extent will Adele get away with her subterfuge, and who will be her discoverer, and what will happen then...
... but also: will the brooding background world events implode into the lives of our friends?
A difficult one to put down.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Arthur and George by Julian Barnes.
You can read more book reviews or buy On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad at Amazon.com.
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