Friday, 14 August 2015

The Strangler Vine

Back to history and books this week, with a review of The Strangler Vine.

Published at the beginning of last year, The Strangler Vine has been extremely well received. It's on the shortlist for the Historical Writers' Association Debut Crown. I'm in the HWA, so I'm excited about this book.

It's set in India in 1837, earlier than my own Cawnpore or Paul Collard's Maharajah's General, but recognisably the same country. In fact, one of the pleasures of the book for me was to meet people I had read about in my own background research - notably the redoubtable Fanny Parks. MJ Carter is an academic historian and her knowledge of the period and its characters shines through the story. My only quibble was with the swearing: bad language is very culturally specific and the 21st-century obscenities of some of the characters did not quite carry conviction.

The Strangler Vine is not an academic book. It combines an old-fashioned adventure story with a convincing political thriller. Mountstuart, the poet, is missing and the Thugs are proving difficult to eliminate, despite the sterling efforts of Major Sleeman. The naive Lieutenant Avery is on a mission to rescue Mountstuart under the command of old India hand Blake, but Blake seems to have a mission of his own. Why is Mountstuart so important to the British? What is Sleeman hiding about the Thugs? And why has the Secret and Political Department chosen Avery for this mission?

Carter has peopled a dramatic plot with fully developed characters. While the heroes are heroic, they are, at the same time, fallible and the villains have their redeeming features. The prose is easy on the eye. Carter uses words with care and her descriptive passages carry you to 19th century India, whilst avoiding the breathless over-writing that this period encourages.

This is not a book that will change your life or make you a better person. I think that Carter has set out to do much the same as me: to entertain the reader for a few hours very pleasantly and, as a bonus, to give them some understanding of the practical and political realities of life in India under Company rule. The reason that she is up for the Debut Crown and I'm not is that (he says through gritted teeth) she does it better than me.

[Other books on British India are also available. They may not be quite as good as The Strangler Vine, but they're still worth your time and the pitiful amount of small change they cost to buy on Kindle.]

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