Title: The Strangler Vine
Author: MJ Carter
This is very exciting for me, because it’s my first five-star review! I picked up The Strangler Vine at the Penguin Bloggers’ Night in, er, mid-March (have been on a bit of a PhD-induced review pause of late), chiefly on the strength of its beautiful cover. Although I really enjoy historical fiction, I get frustrated with the genre as a whole for relying heavily on bodice-ripping Tudor queens. This promised to be something quite different, so I tucked it into my straining-at-the-seams handbag* and resisted the urge to dive straight in on the train home. Unfortunately, I resisted the urge for so long that I forgot that I had it until the April 24-hour readathon rolled around and I was sorting out a TBR. An account of my readathon experience can be found here, but I enjoyed this book so much that I wanted to give a more in-depth review.
Firstly, a quick summary: the story is set in India in 1837, and follows a young East India Company officer as he is sent off on a 19th century-style road trip, more or less against his will, to find a missing writer named Xavier Mountstuart. The officer, William Avery, is accompanied by a duly mysterious older man, Jeremiah Blake. On the road, they encounter ruffians, opium, tigers, and rampant paternalism. That’s all I’m really willing to say about the plot—it would be difficult to go into more detail without spoilers.
I really respect this book, and I think I would have done so even if I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as I did. The themes of imperialism and colonisation are difficult for a British author to address with sufficient cultural sensitivity, and I think Carter does a great job. That issue, which is complicated enough in itself, is compounded by the choice of narrator—an acolyte of the East India Company, a narrow-minded believer in its values. Avery is, at least at the start of the novel, strongly steeped in the jingoistic and bigoted culture of the British Empire. He hasn’t learnt a word of ‘Hindoostani’ and he’s thoroughly disillusioned with everything about Calcutta except for the pretty English girls. This is brave from a literary point of view: trying to create sympathy for Avery in the mind of the reader, whilst still allowing him to be an accurate reflection of a deeply unpleasant chapter in British history. I am impressed with how well she managed it: although I didn’t particularly like Avery, especially at the start of the book, I could see the way that he was a product of his time, and empathise with him even when he was being unbearable.
Over the course of the narrative, he very gradually unbends and starts to respect the culture and values of the ‘natives’, to the extent that it begins to colour his actions and thoughts. In all this, the author resists the urge to have him completely unravel character-wise and turn into a typical 21st century liberal. He still says and thinks racist things sometimes; he’s still definitely a Victorian with Victorian values. As a reader, I never felt like I was being forced to learn a lesson or absorb a moral about treating everyone equally or respecting those who are different. The character development simply unfolds amidst plot development, and it feels entirely natural. Avery never has an epiphany, or a startling realisation, or a life-changing revelation about the way that he has been thinking or behaving. He just changes, slowly but inexorably, the way that people do in real life.
I do think that the quality of the character development in this book outstripped that of the plot—not to say that the plot is not good, but I think that reviews which have compared it to works by Wilkie Collins have done both authors a disservice. Apart from the ties to 19th-century India, I don’t think they have much in common. I think of The Woman in White chiefly as a tightly-plotted detective story where I wanted to punch most of the characters most of the time; this, to me, read more like a bildungsroman conveniently set against the backdrop of a mystery. The reviews of this book on Goodreads are quite polarised, and the negative ones seem to have been expecting a fast-paced adventure. This is not that, but it’s all the better for the fact that it meanders for a bit and is a bit of a slow burner before building up to the story’s climax. The writing reminds me more of Agatha Christie or DL Sayers, whose characters are always as interesting as the situations in which they find themselves, and whose detours-especially in the case of Sayers—sometimes seem a bit tangential to the main point, but are not the less interesting for that.
Briefly, other aspects of the book: the writing of the setting was outstanding. I was left with an extremely vivid picture in my head of Calcutta and the Indian countryside. During a particular scene where Avery visits a local market, I could almost smell the spices and hear the crowds. This is all particularly impressive given that I’ve never been to India (or anywhere outside Europe) and therefore have no memories of the experience to draw upon. I also thought that there was a lot of historical detail slipped in relatively seamlessly, which I enjoyed. The only downside to the book, really, is that I would have liked a lot more information about Blake’s backstory. His is the only character which feels more like a stereotype (Gruff Yet Wise Mountain Man) than a fully-realised person. However, there is a second book coming out (The Infidel Strain; unfortunately I can’t find a release date or a pre-order link), so hopefully more will be forthcoming in the sequel.
Strongly recommended to people who like reading adventure stories, but also strongly recommended to people who like well-written character-driven fiction of any sort. If you’re interested, I recently noticed that Goodreads and Penguin are hosting a giveaway competition for copies of this, which you can enter at https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/enter_choose_address/89434-the-strangler-vine . It closes on the 15th of July.
*The handbag, incidentally, did not survive the trip to Foyles, which is where the event took place. My handbags do tend to suffer from premature book-related death, but this one gave up particularly quickly. Not my fault, though: I had birthday vouchers to spend and Foyles sells things like German translations of Discworld novels, so I couldn’t really help myself.