If ever there was a time I’ve been glad I judged a book by its cover, this is it. “Belonging” is even more exquisite on the inside than on the outside, a delicately spun tale with a rich emotional resonance that gets a grip on your heart and won’t let go. It is the most apparently innocuous of items, an embroidered tablecloth, which precipitates the shocking event that sets this often tragic novel in motion; appropriate, because the book itself is reminiscent of a work of embroidery, with threads moving in, out and around each other, creating a sequence of vivid vignettes that eventually come together to produce one gloriously intricate yet cohesive picture.
The story follows three generations of the same family and revolves around the British presence in India during the days of the Victorian Empire. Arthur is an officer in the British military and his son Henry a civil servant; but it’s the third and final generation we meet first in the shape of Lila, Henry’s daughter. At the start of the novel, Lila’s involvement in the cataclysmic event I alluded to earlier results in her leaving India for England where she lives, initially at least, in a state of emotional shock, with a great aunt to whom she cannot and will not relate. From then on, the book gradually reveals through letters and diaries how the family came to be at the terrible, shattered place it now is.
The idea of belonging can mean so many things, and one of the beauties of this novel is the subtle way it approaches its fundamental theme from so many different angles, from the broad view of colonialism and its implications to the microcosm of a romantic relationship. It would be very easy to judge the colonial aspect through twenty-first century eyes and conclude that none of the British inhabitants could ever truly “belong” in India since, as we would probably all agree today, they were interlopers who had no right to be there. Yet for the people who lived through those times it was so much more complicated than that, as the author shows us. What about the thousands of children who were born in India into a British family and were expected to conduct themselves according to Western values, but who were effectively brought up by Indian nannies, looked after by Indian servants and spent their youth with Indian children among their companions? Lila is one such child, and only really begins to understand the conflicting nature of her cultural identity once she is forced to spend her teenage years in England, a country whose nationality she holds but that she’s never seen. In India she’s most certainly not a native and there’s no doubting her position as a white, British young lady; in Britain on the other hand she’s viewed with suspicion and sometimes derision as the “Indian” girl, whose upbringing sets her apart from others her own age. In her own mind, Lila belongs to a homeland that now the rest of the world is telling her is not really her own. A confused sense of belonging isn’t limited to the British expatriates: in the politically and socially complex world of empirical India the army is full of Indian nationals fighting, potentially their fellow countrymen, on behalf of their colonial overlords. A succession of almost unbearably tense, anguished chapters depicting a mutiny and subsequent slaughter at Cawnpore show in bleak and brutal detail how feelings of loyalty and of belonging to a particular ethnic group were so delicately poised at this volatile time.
The act of being in love is another kind of belonging all together, and just as the novel is full of misplaced souls unable to belong to the place in which they find themselves, so it is full to the brim with the pain of unrequited or thwarted love. The idea of belonging to someone else and the fulfilment to be found from that walks hand in hand with the emotional necessity of having a place to call home. Lila loses her family, friends and security right at the beginning of the book, and later on looks set to lose someone else that she’s grown to love. Only then does she realise that since leaving India there’s only been one person “with whom I felt I belonged” as she says. Without that person to anchor her, she belongs nowhere.
It’s an incredibly sad book in many ways, as successive generations struggle to overcome the dreadful culmination of all the secrets, lies and misfortunes that have gone before them. Bizarrely though, it doesn’t feel that way as you read – and you certainly don’t come away feeling completely downcast, despite all the horror that’s just unfolded. Maybe it’s because the story progresses so gradually and you feel as if the author is exploring her characters’ emotions with real care; at every stage she gives the reader time to draw breath and ruminate on everything that’s going on. For me, this novel exemplifies one of the great things about reading: a book that glides in completely under the radar and then blows your mind with its quality and artistry. The skill with which the novel switches between eras and narrators and slowly but surely gathers all the threads together is extraordinary. Often with stories told through multiple voices I find that I’m more interested in some strands than others, but not here. Come for the cover just as I did by all means – but stay for the content, because it’s truly a work of art.