Review – The Tea-Planter’s Daughter by Sara Banerji
A book that you pick up on the strength of its Amazon preview is a fairly common thing; a truly good book – one with charm that lasts beyond the first few pages – is less so. I got to The Tea Planter’s Daughter by reading a guest post by author Sara Banerji on the BloomsburyReader blog – like so many things in publishing, you get to interesting stuff through contact and interaction. So it was that I came to own the ebook version.
“Interesting stuff” is not an adequate phrase to cover the book’s content. It’s much more than that. Central character Julia Clockhouse is a little bit like what Mary of The Secret Garden may have grown up to be, should cholera have passed the Lennox family by. Julia’s father Edward Buxton is the titular tea-planter, rich and pompous and, we learn, with an apparently inexplicable hatred of his daughter. Or at least, that’s how she sees it.
The Julia of the first few pages appears to be an intolerable brat: unable to get what she wants, she deliberately spills tea on a white pillowcase in an attempt to rile sensible family servant Kali. It seems straightforward enough: she’s a spoiled young woman angry that her husband Ben hasn’t returned for her birthday. The rest of the day will be spent in a furious sulk; the servants fear her temper. But nothing is that simple in Banerji’s book. Julia Clockhouse is a girl whose soul comes out at night.
The book does not unfold so much as uncrumple, like a bunched newspaper being ironed out. Julia’s background, her current life and, importantly, her confusing powers inch out by degrees. She becomes at once a figure of great tragedy and real unease. The story itself is extraordinary. A pet goose, an inattentive artist mother and a zealously Christian ayah are a few of the trying puzzle pieces Julia has had to slot together. Indian culture ensconces and simmers under the whole thing; the setting is the “Elephant Valley,” Arnivarlai, shaped like a great spoon (“at the lips of the gods”), and the setting, food and traditions are wonderful additions to the main tale.
Kali, by the way, may be the best character in the whole book. At his introduction I was worried Banerji was going to fall into the trap of writing the calm spiritual stereotype, but the fears were soon laid to rest. He is calm and certainly very religious, but believably so. He’s also knowing, warm, and probably has a twinkle in his eye. He is the tamer to Julia’s tantrums – and he knows exactly what to do with her. I suppose most of his charm comes from being able to bounce off his charge and Babuchi the cook in the way that he does. Then again, these entertaining exchanges are testament to how well Banerji creates and interlocks her characters.
I think some readers would be forgiven for finding the last quarter of the book hard going. There is suddenly a lot going on – all spiritual, very much rooted in Hindu culture, with some intense magic realism. What you have to do is trust Banerji to guide you to the end. She does this with a steady hand – any time you feel like the book might drop off a cliff like Julia’s pet goose, be assured that Banerji knows exactly what she is doing. By the end, I felt like my emotions and responses manipulated in a skilled way – the mark, I think, of a very good storyteller indeed.
I’d recommend the book to fans of magic realism, of course, but any fiction reader is likely to find many things to enjoy: its tone is something unique and the story, very captivating. For me, it was a perspective-changer, in terms of what I thought magic realism could do. All in all, it’s a beautifully-written story, filled with poetic phrases and highly creative uses of language. A ideal antidote to Aimee Bender’s clumsy The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.
You can get the ebook from Amazon UK, priced at £6.99.