Immersive and deeply romantic, Shona Patel's debut novel is a passport into the rich culture of Assam in northeast India, beginning in 1943 and continuing through the Hindu-Muslim conflicts.
Our guide is Layla Roy, who begins by telling us she was born under an unlucky star. "Marriages in our society are arranged by astrology and nobody wants a warlike bride," she explains. Thankfully, though, this is no cautionary tale about the dangers of avoiding one's fate. Layla is raised by her enlightened grandfather, Dadamoshai, who believes in women's education and gives her the liberty to pursue her future – which, to her surprise, includes Manik Deb, a handsome British-educated civil servant who is already engaged to another woman. Just like Layla, Manik has a talent for directing his own destiny.
With a voice filled with honesty, warmth, and gentle humor, Layla speaks about her secret correspondence with Manik, her amazement at the marriage she never expected to have, and her adjustments to life as the only Indian memsahib on an immense tea plantation in the remote jungles of Assam. Patel seamlessly incorporates many details on the geography and traditions of her homeland to enrich the story, from the politics of leopard hunts to the garish makeup Layla's Spinster Aunt makes her wear at her wedding – this was hilarious! – to the tea crowd's denigrating treatment of a Scottish planter's Bangladeshi concubine. The choices Layla makes for herself aren't without risk, but such is the nature of freedom, and of life.
The novel kept my attention from the first engaging sentence through the finale, which had me holding my breath during the more frightening moments. And although I've never personally set foot in Assam or anywhere in India, it's a testament to Patel's generous storytelling that I felt completely welcomed into Layla's world.
Teatime for the Firefly was published by Harlequin/MIRA in October at $15.95 US/$18.95 Can (trade pb, 422pp). I picked up an ARC at the publisher's booth at ALA this summer.