The opening scene is tense and dramatic, and it’s based on a real-life incident. Moorti, a well-educated Bengali woman left a widow at age seventeen, is forced by her late husband’s relatives to ascend his funeral pyre in a ritual known as “sati.” After her last-minute rescue by a tall European man named Job Charnock, a trader with the English East India Company, she’s transported to the distant town of Cossimbazar, renamed “Maria,” and installed at his trading station (called a Factory) as a cook.
This forces her into unfamiliar situations, and the novel details her plight as she adjusts to her new role as a servant working among men who, although friendly, don’t share her Brahmin caste or Hindu religion. As she says: “In order to survive, even in my constricted role, I needed to figure out what really went on here, and as I could already understand, proficiency in English was the key to everything.”
An appealing heroine, Maria is a hopeful dreamer who aims to help ease the transition for her people into a future she sees as inevitable. Her increasing fluency in English puts her at the center of conflicts at the Factory and political negotiations. She greatly admires the man she calls “Job sahib,” though knows she has little chance of winning his heart due to her low position and darker skin tone. However, her cleverness and ingenuity lead him to see her in a new perspective.
The romance between the pair (again, historically-based) feels like a sudden development on his part. In addition, although Maria narrates most of the novel in a lively, open voice, occasional segments break away to show Job’s internal thoughts, which seem awkwardly inserted. Still, it’s refreshing to read a novel focusing on this period of Indian history, and which imagines the life of a historical woman about whom little is known. Her culture and traditions come to life beautifully, as do her struggles and triumphs.
Goddess of Fire was published in hardcover by Severn House in February (288pp). Thanks to the publisher for enabling my NetGalley access.