Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Shona Patel's Flame Tree Road, a rich journey toward social change in 19th-century India

Historical novels can give us the opportunity to experience distant times and places through the eyes of another. The most talented historical novelists can immerse us in an unfamiliar culture so completely that we become part of it, gaining empathy and understanding for the dilemmas its characters face.

This is the case for Shona Patel’s Flame Tree Road, which is set mostly in 19th-century India. While it was written as a prequel to her debut, Teatime for the Firefly, it can also stand independently. Biren Roy, whose story is told from the early days of his parents’ marriage through his old age, is the man who becomes the beloved grandfather – Dadamoshai – of Layla from Teatime.

Biren’s character is formed through his experiences in both rural India and the hallowed halls of Cambridge. Due to his unique educational background, Biren serves as a bridge between these different cultures, members of whom occasionally treat him like an outsider, but he comes to embody the noblest qualities of both. He is immensely likeable, a man of gentle demeanor and refined manners.  I rooted for him to overcome the obstacles he faced and find personal happiness.

For Biren, observing the shameful treatment of widows in his East Bengal village is the catalyst that directs the flow of his life. In his childhood, he sees how an old woman who lost her husband is forced to live under a banyan tree, while an old fisherman tells him bluntly that widows are “the cursed ones… the most wretched creatures on earth.” After the tragic early death of Biren’s father, he sees his beautiful young mother shunned and brought low, an action supported by the in-laws who loved her. The choice of ancient traditions over love and family is a pattern that repeats.

Fired up by this injustice, Biren knows that education is the key to social transformation and determines to become a lawyer and fight against the oppression of women in this regard. While the British educational model is highly respected, it’s also mistrusted, and Biren learns later that Britain has its own social problems to contend with. He forms friendships overseas and in India, but it’s only when he meets a schoolteacher's daughter named Maya that he finds the love he had sought.

Patel’s settings are evoked through richly woven images, from the generations-old craftsmanship at a potters’ village to the sensual fall of a woman’s hair.  Her descriptions make the river of Biren’s home village easy to visualize: “crescent-shaped fishing boats skim the waters with threadbare sails that catch the wind with the hollow flap of a heron’s wing.” That’s just from the first page. The landscapes through which Biren moves come alive with a sense of wonder.

The last few chapters speed through Biren’s later life much too quickly, and I regretted that the novel wasn’t longer.  The fact that I was left wanting more demonstrates the appeal of the characters. There are many moments of joy in Flame Tree Road, and others of abject sadness, all recounted with the flair of a natural storyteller as Patel brings us deeply into the life of an admirable man who dedicates himself to reshaping his world.

Flame Tree Road was published on June 30 by Mira ($14.95/C$17.95, 396pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy at my request.  For readers curious about Teatime for the Firefly, I reviewed it two years ago.


  1. I love books with this background. I'd certainly like to get to the first book.

    1. I hope you'll enjoy it. You can really read them in either order.

  2. This sounds wonderful. Now I need to read them both.

    1. I recommend them both - India is a favorite setting of mine for historical fiction, and they do a great job of placing you right there.