Before the Rains, Dinah Jefferies
Before the Rains, Dinah Jefferies
Genre: Women’s Fiction, General Fiction.
I’ve read a few books set in Japan and China but not read one set in India ( that I can recall anyway ) since loving Shadow of the Moon, M. M. Kaye back in the late 70’s ( Expecting our eldest son I wanted to call him Ashok…).
I love stories set in other countries when they give a real look at life for the locals, when we see real nitty-gritty parts of their daily lives, not just a UK/US person’s version of their life there. I want to understand what life is about for them, how they live daily, how things interfere with what they do.
In these countries too Religion often plays a large part of daily life, its not a church on Sunday then forget type of thing, but a belief system that affects every facet of their daily interactions. When I get a story like that AND a romance thrown in I’m in heaven 😉
So we’re back in time, to 1930’s when the British Empire was still around. Nowadays its hard to believe that such a tiny country as Britain could have been such a world force, and reading about it doesn’t stir patriotic pride in me, but sadness that we could ever think we had the right to take over another country.
In this story Eliza keeps asking why did the Indian Princes agree – and that’s something that always puzzled me. A country so vast, with an incredibly massive population – how on earth did tiny Britain persuade them to let go and let us rule?
Part of the answer I think, lays in the fact there were so many Princes, so much infighting and distrust, and a degree of taking the easy route, swayed by UK promises of how life would be as part of the British Empire. Not quite all lies, but a real manipulation of the truth – nothing changes in politics does it * sigh *
I loved the characters, from Eliza, so brave going abroad with her camera at a time when women were still kept “in their place”, Jay the younger son, second in line to rule, his mother who was a wonderful lady, but of course only wanted what was right (in her view) for her sons. Then there’s the ruling prince, Jay’s older brother, who’s a weak man, pushed around by his wife, and his conniving advisor.
There’s a girl, Indira, who features a lot in the book, she’s a very talented artist, and a kind of unofficial sister in a way to the princes. She was sent to the palace as a child when her life was in danger, and she’s kind of worked her way into a position, but not having any official role. I wasn’t sure whether to trust her or not. Like Eliza I tend to take people at face value, believe in the best of them, but it doesn’t always work that way.
I also liked Dottie, part of the British contingent, wife to a doctor, and a lonely lady. There aren’t many British ladies there and she’s desperate to befriend Eliza. She does prove to be a really good friend, and I felt for her in her loneliness, wanted her to be happy.
There wasn’t really a role in India for wives, they couldn’t work, had servants for everything, and were answerable to husbands for their every move. It really was a man’s world there.
Eliza had a difficult background, saw her adored father killed in front of her when she was a child, brought up by a mother who was an angry, bitter woman, an apathetic, alcoholic. They had a strained relationship but she was still very influenced by trying to please her mother.
Part of the reason she married was to escape home, but she jumped from frying pan to fire, and marriage didn’t bring about happiness. Now she’s a widow, her husband having been killed in an accident.
Then there’s the other main player, Jay, and he’s gorgeous. Indian by birth, a younger son but educated in UK at Eton, so he’s Westernised in many ways of thinking. He’s a moderniser, wants to help people, wants to make their lives better, but he’s constrained by money.
He doesn’t want to be prince, he’s happy to leave that to his brother. With the British running so much of their lives though, there isn’t much he can do for the people he wants to help
He and Eliza get off on a bad footing, like many others he thinks she’s been sent as a spy.
There’s a degree of naivety about Eliza, she really believes that photographing is the only reason she’s been asked to the palace…but slowly she learns more of life, from both sides. Her UK contact Clifford, quizzes her very subtly and its a while til she spots what he’s doing.
Back at the palace she feels watched, scared of Chataur, the ruling prince’s right hand and advisor.
He makes no secret about disliking Eliza, and tries everything he can to erode her confidence, to shift blame to her for events, to block what she wants to do. He’s a very powerful and influential man in the palace and makes for a bad enemy.
She learns of the little everyday cruelties, of how the palace is gem studded while the greater part of the population live in poverty, struggle for food and water, affected by the drought.
How girls are left to die ( taken by wolves is the usual excuse), how religion and fatalism/destiny plays such a huge part of life.
They’re a very superstitious people, as are most that live like that, people need something to blame, something to believe in that they might get a better life, and for most Indians its a Karmic force, working towards a better next life.
That really comes through here, the time period felt right, I loved seeing those snippets of life, from the dust and poverty, the cruelties ( not that I liked them, but that they gave a solid background to the era) and the contrast of life for those born to the right people.
I was astounded at the British influence, the arrogance, ( and for many that hasn’t changed sadly…) the way they saw themselves as better, more important, more able to rule.
Its breath-taking how blinkered people are, and of course we see just how powerful they are when it comes to getting what they want, and for Clifford that’s Eliza. He makes it clear how much he likes her, how he’d like to marry her and poor Eliza has a difficult path to tread. She needs him as her contact, as the man who set things up, but doesn’t want to be more to him than just a friend.
Like most men in his position though he’s used to getting what he wants.
Eliza is falling for Jay though and he for her. It comes about slowly, from that bad start they spend time together while he takes her to places, and introduces her to people she can photograph. They both learn more about each other, find out there’s more than their first perceptions, and get closer.
Its hard though, they know they can’t have a future. He’s important to his people, next to rule if anything happens to his brother, and his mother is trying to make him a match already, with another influential family, to strengthen the family’s position and force. They know that, know that the country would never accept Eliza, that law prevents any children they have from being in line to rule, that as a widow Eliza is supposed to wear white, bear the blame for her husband’s death and stay in mourning for the rest of her life. Jay’s already warned her not to tell people she’s a widow as they are so superstitious and believe a widow brings bad luck. Many won’t even touch one, and Eliza could be in danger of word gets out.
Its a lovely story, beautiful romance built up carefully, full of decisions, some heart-breaking, dotted with things that bring the time and place to reality such as the Suttee burning of a widow, a practice outlawed by the Brits but something that still goes in in some parts, even if the poor wife doesn’t want to die…
I loved the palace, the twisting turning tunnels, the tiny rooms and then the vast light and richness of other parts.
Loved seeing Jays irrigation project come to fruition, was taken in along with Eliza about some people, and yet others were incredibly kind to her. It was difficult to know who to trust.
Some people and events I thought followed a predictable route, and I could see what was coming, except occasionally it veered off and I was completely wrong.
Great fun, and I love to be taken by surprise about events. There’s times, especially in the latter part of the book, where I just couldn’t see how things could work out, was heartbroken for Eliza, convinced Dinah would do something to make it come right, but where I just couldn’t see how. That’s why I’m a reader not a writer of course!!
Stars: Five, one to keep, to savour rereading, a story to really get lost in, transported to another time and place.
ARC supplied for review purposes by Netgalley and Publishers