Cawnpore is on offer this month (99p in UK, 99c in the USA), so I probably ought to take the time to tell you why you should read it.
I asked Accent if they would put this book on price promotion because, of the five I have written, this is my personal favourite, but I don't think it's ever going to be the best selling.
The books that people like to read are the ones about James Burke, the dashing spy who wins through against the backdrop of the battles of the Napoleonic wars. I enjoy writing them and I hope that you enjoy reading them. The history is realistic and therefore, inevitably, sometimes a bit gruesome, but the tone is generally light. Burke is not unduly worried about the morality of his work and there is an underlying assumption that it is the proper role of the British Army to travel round the world beating the French. (And why not?)
A sharp contrast to these books are the memoirs of a fictional mid-Victorian called John Williamson. There are two so far and I've just finished writing the final instalment of the trilogy.
John Williamson and James Burke could hardly be more different. Williamson is a gay man from a working class background who finds himself elevated to positions of authority in Britain’s colonial empire. An outsider on grounds of both class and sexuality, he finds himself questioning the situations he finds himself in, torn between a conventional assumption of the rightness of British rule and doubts as to what the British end up doing to the countries they have occupied.
The books aren't an attack on colonialism. Williamson sees the good as well as the bad in colonial rule. The result is that the poor guy is constantly conflicted.
The first book, The White Rajah, is set in Borneo, where Williamson is working with James Brooke, the adventurer who famously came to rule his own country. Like all first novels, it took years to write and it still shows that I was new to the game. It will always have a special place in my heart, but it’s not my favourite.
Cawnpore followed on from The White Rajah. Technically, that makes it a sequel, but the story stands by itself. The book finds Williamson in the eponymous city during the months running up to the Indian Mutiny. He loves India and develops a deep attachment to the culture. He also enjoys his work, which he sees as improving the lives of the natives. But he is far from comfortable with the narrow-minded bureaucrats who make up his colleagues. When the Indian Mutiny breaks out, he is torn between his loyalty to England and his love of India.
The story sticks very closely to the well-documented history of the siege of Cawnpore and the eventual arrival of a British relief force just too late to prevent the massacre of the entire European population. Williamson is in the remarkable position of, at different times, finding himself fighting on both sides. It can't end well, and it doesn't.
It's a deeply depressing book. Nobody – Indian or European – comes out of it particularly well. Given the historical facts, it is hardly a plot spoiler to say that most people don't come out of it at all. Many people who have read the book have told me that it reduced them to tears. You can see why it's not a book that is going to attract casual readers who don't know me. In fact, when I was first trying to sell the Williamson books, I was advised to get myself better known with something more commercial before letting these out on the world. That’s how James Burke was born.
So Cawnpore is a book written in the first person (with all the long sentences and peculiar vocabulary that you associate with the mid-19th century), by someone who is deeply distressed about events that end up killing most of the characters. Why on earth would you want to read it? Well, this is what some other people have said about it:
… an excellent introduction to India as part of the British Rajah, and to the siege of Cawpore. The author does not deviate from the facts and the novel is a solid piece of history turned into a fascinating story and well worth a read.
Evocative and haunting. I couldn't put this book down. Not only is it a solid account of the tragic events at Cawnpore, it's a rattling good adventure and a gentle, understated love story. It's one I'll return to.
… approaches that ranks of Sarah Waters in storytelling.
A moving and thought-provoking novel.
An absolute gem of contemporary literature!
I read this all in one sitting and it's one of those evocative and haunting books I know I'll return to again.
… a fine work of historical fiction, faithful to the events but able to reveal far more about them through the interpolation of self reflective fictional characters.
For anyone who has a love for this period, Cawnpore is probably one for you.
Remember to buy tissues.