Evie Mitchell arrives in India in 1947 with her historian husband, Martin, and their five-year-old son, Billy. The recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, Martin is eager to document firsthand the last days of the British Raj. Evie hopes that their staying together as a family in this unfamiliar land will repair their strained marriage and teach Billy about respecting other countries' beliefs.
Things don't turn out as she planned. Martin refuses to discuss his wartime experiences with Evie and, with the timeline for India's Partition moved up unexpectedly, worries about their safety. Evie doesn't fit in with the bigoted expatriate community and is left to her own devices. Tired of what she feels is Martin's paranoia, she feels lonely and restless.
Then, concealed within their bungalow in the village of Masoorla, just outside Simla, Evie discovers fragments of personal letters between Felicity and Adele, two Victorian-era friends who lived in her house 90 years before. She gets caught up in their lives and determines to find out what happened to them. Their story, a tale of daring female adventure and several instances of forbidden love, is revealed piece by piece and intertwines neatly with Evie's narrative.
Newmark's vibrant portrait of India details its opulent beauty, its appalling poverty, and the difficult paths to cross-cultural understanding. The tension level rises as the relaxing atmosphere of remote Masoorla braces up against the violent Muslim-Hindu conflicts before Partition in the later timeline, and the tragic aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny in the earlier one.
This isn't the type of historical novel that glorifies unconventional behavior during a restrictive time. It's more realistic than that. Both Felicity and Adele flout their families' expectations, each choosing personal happiness over society's approval. As she learns more about them, Evie comes to admire them as trailblazers, but they're considered scandalous by their contemporaries.
I read The Sandalwood Tree in just over a day, immersed in the Indian setting and the dilemmas faced by all three women. Sadly, the quote at the very beginning of the novel, Adele's remark that "death steals everything but our stories," could be the author's epitaph. She passed away in June after a two-year illness. Newmark became a successful author late in life, and her journey from aspiring writer to self-published novelist to international bestseller is truly inspiring.
The Sandalwood Tree was published by Atria in April at $25.99 ($29.99 in Canada) and by Black Swan (UK) in August at £7.99.