Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald
|Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: The historically immense hatred Indian Mutiny/the First Indian War of Independence (depending on your side) juxtaposed against a love story without compromising either. This is wonderful stuff so tissues at the ready and begin…|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 832||Date: October 2014|
|Publisher: Head of Zeus|
1850s India: Laura Hewitt accompanies her newly married cousin Emily Flood and Emily's husband Charles to the exotic sub-continent for a visit to Charles' half-brother Oliver Erskine. Although none of the travellers have ever met Oliver, many of the people they encounter have heard of him and the way he rules his small fiefdom as its Zemindar. These stories tantalise Laura as the information conflicts and she's unable to develop a mental picture of the man. That's not all that's conflicting: there's an increasing feeling of unrest in this furthest outpost of Queen Victoria's empire which will eventually lead to one of the bloodiest episodes in Indo-British history. Laura, Emily and Charles are naïve, but that won't save them from what's to come – something beyond their worst nightmares.
This is the second bible-sized novel Head of Zeus have published in quick succession. Indeed, although on a totally different subject Zemindar has a lot in common with the first, Csardas by Diane Pearson. As with Csardas please don’t let the brick appearance deter you from picking it up and, also as with Csardas, Zemindar is just as rave-worthy, leaving us wanting more.
Originally Zemindar was published in 1980 and won its author Valerie Fitzgerald an award and an accolade or two. It's written from her family's experience; Valerie's grandmother lived through the Indian Mutiny and Valerie's father was posted to Lucknow (the site of the siege this novel drives towards) during World War II. In fact Valerie has memories of wandering around its streets as a child and staying at the estate of a Zemindar.
A Zemindar is a feudal landlord in India, being responsible for tracts of land and the people who occupied them. Therefore when Valerie was considering writing a novel set in the time of the Great Indian Mutiny or (if viewed from the other side) the First Indian War of Independence, it made sense to make her hero such a landlord. He is really quite a hero too.
Forged in the Rochester/Mr Darcy tradition, Oliver Erskine is a dark horse, despite sun-bleached hair. From the moment they meet he and Laura become the antidote to Victorian stereotype as feist meets a man not used to feist and sparks fly. I'm not going to give anything away – and Valerie is particularly good with the will-they-won't-they sub-plot – but even if you think you can guess the ending it doesn't matter as this intelligent romance is as luxurious as melting chocolate on the tongue.
The love story may be excellent but it's not the be all and end all as the history isn't neglected; in fact it's a major character. Charles, Emily and Laura's staid adventure starts to become something else when Valerie turns up the tension and, as things really worsen, removes the romance. It's almost as if she's removing any distraction from the battles and skirmishes ahead.
The rumours about unrest spread alongside those whispered to escalate the troubles; stories of taboo fats on ammunition and what Queen Victoria may intend to do with Crimean war widows (hadn't heard that one) slowly spiral to actual bloodshed. By the time we get to the Siege of Lucknow we're riveted, following developments step by step, almost peeking out from behind our fingers at tines. The squeamish needn't worry though; Valerie communicates horror without being too graphic.
Talking of history, this is where Oliver comes in handy for something other than his swarthy good looks. (I know – he has sun-bleached hair but it's my imagination so my mental picture.) Being a Brit 'turned native' (as the ex-pats scathingly refer to him) Oliver is our guide to the Indian customs and ideas as much as he is for Emily, Charles and Laura. Being sympathetic to the local people (as indeed we are when we've been among the Brits for a while!) he's our eyes and ears to their version. Yes, we care about our three travellers and friends like the serially unlucky Averys but, while we don't condone the sepoy's atrocities, we fully understand.
I was so enveloped that I, who dislike soppy stuff, not only forgave the very occasional touch of the 'Darling! Darling!'s but found myself dabbing my eyes. The publicity blurb likens Zemindar to MM Kaye's The Far Pavilions but, although I loved that, Oliver Erskine puts this into a class of its own. Indeed, I found Valerie's marriage of history and humanity irresistible and I have a feeling I won't be the only one.
(Thank you so much Head of Zeus for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If this appeals then we're betting you'll also love the aforementioned Csardas.
You can read more book reviews or buy Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald at Amazon.com.
Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books 2014.
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