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Book Review: The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

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1947 is the year of Britain’s withdrawal from India; it is also a time of civil unrest. Planned Partition is set to happen even against the will of Gandhi. It is a dangerous time to both visitors as well as the differing factions in India. It is during this war-torn strife that Martin Mitchell wins a Fellowship to study in India. He is there to document the end of the 200 years of British Raj. Arriving with his wife Evie and son Billy they settle into their new home with care.

Evie plans to use the time to work on her marriage, Martin is not the same man she married. The War in Europe changed him into an angry and introspective man. While Evie is cleaning and making the bungalow ready, she finds some letters hidden behind a brick in the chimney. Why are they hidden? Just that question alone creates a mystery that envelopes Evie’s curiosity.

There is something about the letters, dated from 1846-1851 and following the lives of two young women named Adela Winfield and Felicity Chadwick, that intrigue her. Curious as to why the letters were hidden, it makes her want to know more about the two.  There is something fascinating about reading how life was in a prior time.

As her life with Martin continues to erode, she immerses herself in the mystery and romance that becomes clear through the writing of these long ago notes. The small parcel of letters she finds is not enough and she decides to make a quest to find whatever information she can to learn their true story. Beginning at the cemetery, it guides her to the church where parish records are kept.  It is here in the records she finds further letters and records of the lives of Adela and Felicity. Further search for information takes her into the bazaars and temples of India, looking for more. It is during this further search that she learns of a dark secret. This secret only further drives a wedge in her marriage.

Will her marriage ever be the same?  In The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark, we follow the lives of the Mitchell family as well as the lives and times of the two young Englishwomen, Adela and Felicity. The letters are wonderful and well detailed, taking you back to an earlier time and place. As you follow their story, you forget they are not in the here and now, and like Evie you want to know more. The details are scintillating and their actions are bold for the times, yet they demand your admiration. From their lives in England to their relocation to India, they remain fast and true to the end.  They are the best of friends with a secret that could certainly put them at risk. Will it be worth it?

Evie follows a path, fraught with danger and intrigue to find the answers to the lives of these young women putting herself and her family in danger in the process. Evie is a strong and caring young woman with a heart of gold. But she is beginning to lose her patience with her husband and it makes her reckless. Her relationship with her son is amazing. Newmark has developed a character with humor as well as panache. She has different nicknames for Billy that she brings out frequently, sharing a charming and unique side of her that draws you in.                                                                                                 

Martin has a secret and is unwilling to share the burden with Evie. It eats at him and shadows everything he is and longs to be. He is in an obvious self-destructive phase, and yet periodically you can see the man behind the pain. He is flawed and yet remarkable, but can he recover from the shadow that haunts him?

Billy is absolutely charming and wins your heart with his conversation and actions. He is an extremely bright child and is able to twist everyone he meets around his finger. The danger around the family is very real and creates a tenseness, an uneasiness hard to overcome.

The backdrop is beautiful, and Newmark does a wonderful job of capturing the sights and sounds of India and shares them with us, making you feel like you are there in that place at that time. She weaves danger and suspense throughout the story, creating an irresistible and fast-paced read. We are there with Evie when she is researching and I found I wanted to know about the Englishwomen’s lives as much as she did. It is a story in a story and yet written with a wonderful clarity, a sassiness and verve that pulls you in and does not let go until the very end. Even then, you find yourself thinking about the characters and wanting more.

This is a wonderful work of fiction and would be an exceptional book for a book club and reading group. It is a must-have for your library, a book you can take out and read over, and due to the intricate detail you would find information you may have missed the first time. This is an remarkable  story, with a setting you can feel and characters right out of life.

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About Leslie Wright

Leslie Wright is an author and blogger in the Northwest.