I went a whole year without having this wonderful novel in my brain.
The Sandalwood Tree is set in 1947 India, when England is pulling out, and India is being partitioned--Hindus will live in India, and Muslims will be forced to move to a new country, Pakistan created from part of India. Not such good news for those who've lived in villages for generations, who must now pack up and leave their way of life to start over in a new place.
Evie and her husband Martin have arrived from Chicago to live in Masoorla, a small village far away from the larger cities where trouble is brewing. Martin is a historian working on his Ph.d and has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to write about the partition going on in India. He is also a World War 2 vet who has come home shattered and emotionally distant from Evie and their young son Billy. Evie is at a loss as to helping her husband heal from the war and once again become the loving man she was married to before he fought in Germany. She insists on coming to India with him, and soon finds herself caught up in a mystery from the 1850's.
In a furious bought of cleaning, Evie finds a hidden compartment in the kitchen wall, and inside it are a few letters from the 1850's, written between to young ladies: Adela and Felicity. There's not much to go on, but Evie soon becomes entangled in the intriguing story of Adela and Felicity--what happened to them, and why were two young Englishwomen in India during a time of great turbulence between the Raj and the people?
I really enjoyed this novel. I loved the setting--something I have never read much about. The India of 1947 is lush with sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that I suspect are still found today in small villages and the countryside. Evie is a strong character; fighting for her husband, bravely traveling to temples, churches, and along the villages to find more information about Adela and Felicity. She's also a loving mother who worries she made a mistake bringing 5 year old Billy along on this trip. Her battles to cling onto her previously happy marriage are parallel to the unrest going on around her, as violence breaks out and the safety of foreigners is not guaranteed.
Adela and Felicity are two brave young women who's story is told by Evie and by the letters and journals found as Evie searches for answers--why are they in India? What happened to the women? 90 years later, the answers are not easy to find.
I highly recommend this novel. It was engaging, colorful, and at the same time a poignant reminder of the horrors of war. You will find yourself rooting for Evie and dreaming about a trip to India.
Rating: 4/5 for writing, characters, and plot.
This novel will be out in paperback at the end of March, 2012.