Monday, November 18, 2013

Shona Patel's Teatime for the Firefly, a transporting novel of 1940s India

Looking at an unopened copy of Teatime for the Firefly, you may take it to be a delicate work of women's literature, something involving tea-drinking and love letters, perhaps with an international flair.  This is only partly accurate; while the cover reflects some of its subjects, it just barely hints at the vibrancy to be found inside.

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.

10 comments:

  1. Thanks for this great review. I got this book at BEA last June and have been meaning to read it. You have inspired me to finally do it.

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    1. I hope you enjoy it just as much, Alex. I'd been meaning to read it for some time also. I recently saw a mention on Twitter that the author was speaking at a local meeting of the Arizona Historical Novel Society chapter, which jogged my memory about it and prompted me to pull it from the TBR.

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  2. This looks like a great read! I want to read more books set in India and Asia and the premise of this one is so engaging.

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    1. It really was a great read, and I loved spending time in Layla's India. There are a few other historicals set in India that I'm planning to get to, also, including Indu Sundaresan's The Mountain of Light and Sujata Massey's The Sleeping Dictionary.

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  3. As you imply, women's literature (and women) are not so "delicate"!

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    1. I can see the cover working well for a novel that was more formal in tone or uses a traditional English setting, and it may cause book club readers to pick it up - but it doesn't capture the setting of this one especially well. That's what I was trying to get at!

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  4. I read this one, and loved it too, Sarah. I belong to the AZ chapter of the HNS and am very much looking forward to Shona's talk after the new year.

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    1. I wish I lived closer so I could make it to that meeting and hear the talk! Just found your wonderful review of Teatime on your blog.

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  5. This sounds like a great thought-provoking read and an entertaining one, as well; a combination not easily come by! Having known two young Indian women, one a work colleague and one an author, I can attest to the strength of Indian women. It is surprising how the old marriage customs still cling on in much of Indian society. Although "you can't tell a book by its cover" we all know that readers are swayed by the visual and much thought should be put into the design. A cover such as this one only demonstrates the irony of the title vs the characters if the reader already knows the story line. Perhaps some small detail could have been added to show this "steel magnolia/ iron butterfly" connection.

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    1. I agree with you on the cover. My guess is it was meant to attract readers who wouldn't ordinarily seek out a novel in a less familiar setting. It was probably successful in that, but I still think it doesn't fit the characters!

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