As a long-time Sujata Massey fan, I was anxious to get my hands on her latest novel, and it did not disappoint!!
Sujata Massey was born in England to parents from India and Germany (just like my friend Nandita), and she grew up mostly in Minnesota. After working as a reporter, she spent several years in Japan where she taught, studied, and began writing her first novel, The Salaryman's Wife. That first novel grew into a detective series with smart, industrious, and savvy Rei Shimura, a Japanese-American antiques dealer who lives in Japan and solves mysteries on the side. I read every single one of the Rei Shimura novels as soon as they came out and have widely recommended them to friends. In fact, the Rei Shimura series is the only detective series I've devoured in its entirety outside of the VI Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky (my first introduction to detective novels). I'm not naturally drawn to mysteries, so I'm highly selective. Authors (e.g., Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell) lose my attention if their books are not well written or if I get tired of the main character. Of course, Rei Shimura held my attention completely because of the series' setting in Japan (mostly). Loved them!
So onto The Sleeping Dictionary. This book took six years for Massey to research and write, because it involved so much in-depth research into Indian history, culture, and language. Massey's family comes from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and she spent time there as a child (read her wonderful diary entries here!), so it was a natural choice for setting this novel.
It's the story of Pom, who lives with her family in a small village by the sea. Her family is very poor, but she feels secure and well loved until a tidal wave wipes out her whole village and her family. Completely alone and helpless in 1930s India, Pom is a survivor. She ends up at a British boarding school, where she is renamed as Sarah and begins working as a maid. She learns how to read and write while operating the fan in a classroom. When she befriends a wealthier Indian girl, Bidushi, who she had known as a child, she comes to discover her own intelligence and talents. Although she hopes to become Bidushi's ayah and always stay together, these dreams are soon dashed by tragedy.
Still very young, she next finds herself in the city of Kharagpur, lured into prostitution at a high-class brothel. As an Indian girl without a family, she has few options for survival. She desperately tries to cling to her dignity in the midst of her despair at being forced to sell her body, and she continues to nurture dreams of becoming a teacher. (The title of the book comes from the term for young Indian women who slept with British men and taught them the ways and language of India.)
I hesitate to give away too much of the plot and adventure in the novel, but I will say that she moves to Calcutta where she renames herself as Kamala, begins to work for an English man, and gets involved in the Indian independence movement.
So here are some of the reasons why I loved this book:
- Pom/Sarah/Kamala is a strong, spunky Indian female, and I found myself rooting for her immediately and throughout her story. Faced with desperately difficult choices in her life, she does the best she can with what is given to her. While she is certainly a victim many times in her life, she has no privilege to wallow in misery and self-pity, but time after time she finds ways to rise above her difficult circumstances.
- I could practically taste Calcutta through Massey's detailed descriptions of the city. I've traveled only in the north of India (we concentrated our time there in Delhi, Agra, and Rajasthan), but I found myself intrigued by the City of Palaces and sad to read about its devastation during the pre-Independence riots and violence.
- I have read great quantities of Indian fiction (and a bit of nonfiction, too), but this book taught me things I did not know...for example, about the massive famine in Bengal caused by the British Empire hoarding India's rice (millions died), India's amazing female freedom fighters and independence activists, Japan bombing India during the war, some members of the Indian resistance movement joining the Japanese led by Subhash Chandra Bose, to name a few...it also gives the Anglo-Indian perspective on what was happening during that time.
- Massey develops multidimensional characters, including Hindus, Muslims, and British, and even some of the women who are sucked into prostitution. Kamala herself makes some unfortunate decisions and lies to people because she feels she has no choice. She's a complex character who is far from perfect. Both Kamala and Simon evolve through the story. There's even a Scottish clergyman who is open minded, fair, and compassionate...imagine that!
- As a consummate book lover, I enjoyed the sheer love of books in this novel. From the moment "Sarah" borrows books from a kind teacher at the British boarding school and her gradual collection of the great masters, to Kamala landing a wonderful job as a librarian for Mr. Lewes...books offer her an escape from the great losses in her life.
I was excited to learn that this book is the first in a planned trilogy, AND that Rei Shimura will be making a reappearance! The Sleeping Dictionary will be near the top of my "Top Reads of 2013" list! If you enjoy reading historical fiction or books about India, the colonial era, or strong female characters, give it a try!
Here is Sujata Massey speaking about The Sleeping Dictionary, and an interview with her.