The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

11th Mar 2011


In 1947, when this tale is set, India is in the middle of huge upheaval as the British finally make their way out, and the country is divided by religion that sees the migration of refugees across borders into the newly created Pakistan.

Against this backdrop of imbalance and confusion, Evie’s attempts to understand her husband’s reticence are frustrated, but when she discovers hidden letters and papers in their rented home, she begins to find a new perspective.

The papers reveal stories of friendship and love from 100 years earlier, written by a Victorian English woman, and as Evie attempts to uncover more about the distant characters described, so she begins to make drastic decisions about her own place in the world.

The novel is written with a naivete that took some getting used to at the beginning. Against the horrors that are befalling India at one of the most devastating periods of its history, it was initially difficult to feel much sympathy with the middle-class white American couple and their small child.

Similarly, the sections that are set 100 years earlier are set against a backdrop of horrendous massacre in the same area.

However, with the 1947 sections written from Evie’s point of view, and the 19th century sections written through the eyes of an English “lady”, these sheltered voices began to feel authentic in their over-sensitivity, simplification of the catastrophes engulfing the country, and quaintly curious approach to the fabulous country they have decided to make their home.

Although the tales of both narrators are set in India, their perspectives do not lend the reader any insights into either the country or its people, as can be found in such novels as Rohinton Mistry‘s A Fine Balance.

Nevertheless the prose is charming, and describes with beauty and enthusiasm the magical spell India has cast on many of its visitors. The characters in both the 19th and 20th Century tales are well-rounded and easy to both identify with and imagine, and although the idiosyncrasies and neuroses of the main narrators are initially a little grating, they add much to the tale as it becomes more convoluted.

Structurally the novel is a little strangely constructed, in that it quite formally and consistently alternates between time periods at the beginning, but tails off after the midway point as the author appears to have become caught up in one time period and forgotten about the other.

By the conclusion, the nugget of information linking the time periods together is a little tenuous and feels tacked on as a contrived afterthought, which rather undermines the need to have the two pieces linked at all.

As enjoyable as both stories were to read, I had hoped for a more compelling twist that would entwine the lives more interestingly, and was left feeling that perhaps the author should have written two shorter books rather than squashing them both into one. Where at the start it appears both tales will be cleverly weaved together, they in fact had little more to do with one another than coincidence.

This is a pleasantly romantic book that felt quite indulgent to read. It temporarily moved me, but left me ultimately unscathed. Published in February by Doubleday, you can buy it in paperback for £7.89.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: A diverting and romantic read that doesn’t ask too much of its reader

Other recommending reading: For other stories of mystery and love in India, there’s E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India or Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

Gabriella Apicella