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Historical Fiction

THE TAINTED . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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When I was offered the chance to read The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan, I sensed that it wasn’t my usual fare, but I was drawn in by the historical and military background of the story. I’ll say right now that I loved it. The narrative spans sixty years, is set in India between 1920 and 1982 and deals with two very different families – that of an Anglo-Irish soldier, and a young Anglo-Indian woman and her descendants.

The TaintedThis is a fine novel, and as is to be expected with any such story set in historical India – think A Passage To India or The Jewel In The Crown – at its heart are the various tensions that exist between native Indians, Anglo-Indians (people of mixed race) and the British rulers. Cauvery Madhavan doesn’t stop there, however. She introduces another theme of social conflict which shimmers and reverberates rather like the sympathetic strings on a sitar, and this is the relationship between another group of subjects and masters – the Roman Catholic population of The Irish Republic and the English landed gentry who, for so long, governed them.

The story begins in 1920, in the garrison town of Indaghiri. Private Michael Flaherty of the Kildare Rangers falls in love with Rose Twomey, a young woman who works as a maidservant in the house of Colonel Aylmer, the head of the regiment. Historical background is crucial here, but I’ll be as concise as possible. The Kildare Rangers are fictional, but their factual counterparts were the Connaught Rangers. The southern Irish regiments had fought bravely for the British cause in The Great War, but with republican unrest simmering in Ireland, many of the units had been posted overseas.

Rose Twomey is fair of skin, with delightful freckles, but she is mixed race. Her father married an Indian woman, and so Rose carries the crucial taint of being Anglo-Indian and, to use the brutal logic of the time, she is neither one thing nor the other. Michael and Rose sup well, but not wisely, and the result is that Rose, pregnant with Michael’s child, is disowned by both her father and the Aylmer family.

One of the remarkable things about the logistics of the British Army in The Great War was that it was able to deliver letters from home with pinpoint accuracy to even the most God-forsaken trench on the Western Front, and so it that the men of the Kildare Rangers have a ready supply of news from home. And it is not good news. In an attempt to stifle Irish nationalism, the British have created an auxiliary police force attached to the Roral Irish Constabulary. Known as the Black and Tans, they are mostly unemployed former soldiers, and their brutal intimidation of the civilian population is causing unrest among the men of the Rangers. When this unrest turns to outright mutiny, it is soon quashed, but Michael and several other men are arrested and face the firing squad.

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 19.56.18The second part of The Tainted jumps forward to 1982. India is rapidly emerging as a modern nation, but it retains the vast web of bureacracy bequeathed to it by the long departed British. Mohan Kumar is the Collector for the Nandagiri district. He is, in the vast scheme of things, a relatively minor functionary, but one with great local power and prestige. He is asked to accommodate a photographer from Ireland, Richard Aylmer, who is none other than the grandson of the late Colonel of the Kildare Rangers. The Colonel was a talented artist, and Richard’s mission is to match contemporary photographs with the scenes his grandfather painted. Mohan points Richard in the direction of Gerry Twomey, a forestry manager whose knowledge of the local landscape is unmatched.

Of course, Gerry Twomey – and his sister May – are descendants of Rose Twomey, and I will say no more other than to promise that what follows is enchanting, heartbreaking and beautifully written. Cauvery Madhavan (above right) takes many risks, plot-wise in this book, but everything not only falls into place, but does so with style and bravura. The Tainted is published by HopeRoad and is out on 30th April.

Men of the Connaught Rangers did stage a brief mutiny against their commanders, and some of the ringleaders were executed. Those buried in India were, as suggested in The Tainted, eventually disinterred and their remains repatriated to Ireland. You can find out more here.

For more about the Raj in 20th century India, take a look at the excellent Christian Le Fanu novels by Brian Stoddart.

THE FAMILIARS . . . A launch to remember

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sidebar1AT THE APPROPRIATELY NAMED DEAD DOLLS HOUSE in Islington, the inventive folks at publishers Bonnier Zaffre launched Stacy Halls’ novel The Familiars with not so much a flourish as a brilliant visual fanfare.

The novel was at the centre of a vigorous bidding war and, having won it, Bonnier Zaffre celebrated in style. The book is set in seventeenth century Lancashire, and the drama plays out under the lowering and forbidding bulk of Pendle Hill. If that rings a bell, then so it should. The Pendle Witch Trials were a notorious example of superstition and bigotry overwhelming justice. Ten supposed witches were found guilty and executed by hanging.

Stacey Halls takes the real life character of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, still a teenager, yet mistress of the forbidding Gawthorpe Hall. Despite being only 17, she has suffered multiple miscarriages, but is pregnant again. When a young midwife, Alice Grey, promises her a safe delivery, the two women – from such contrasting backgrounds –  are drawn into a dangerous social upheaval where a thoughtless word can lead to the scaffold.

Back to modern London. Francesca Russell, now Publicity Director at Bonnier Zaffre, has masterminded many a good book launch, and she and her colleagues were on song at The Dead Dolls House.  We were able to mix our own sidebar2witchy tinctures using a potent combination of various precious oils. I went for Frankincense with a dash of Patchouli. I managed to smear it everywhere and such was its potency that my wife was convinced that I had been somewhere less innocent than a book launch.

We were encouraged to give a nod to the novel’s title, and draw a picture of our own particular familiar, and pin it to a board for all to see. I decided to buck the trend towards foxes, cats and toads, and went for a fairly liberal interpretation of that modern icon, the spoilt and decidedly bratty Ms Peppa Pig.

The absolute highlight and masterstroke of the evening was, however, a brief dramatisation of a scene from the novel. Gemma Tubbs was austere and elegant as Fleetwood, while Amy Bullock, with her Vermeer-like simple beauty, brought Alice to life.

That’s the good news, and I have a copy of the novel. The bad news is that it isn’t out on general release until February 2019. Here’s wishing everyone a happy winter, and I hope you all survive another one. If you need an incentive to get through the long hours of cold, darkness and northern gloom, The Familiars should fit the bill. It will be published by Bonnier Zaffre and can be pre-ordered here.

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