When Renita D’Silva writes about India, it comes alive on the page. Her books are dual timeline family mysteries combining a modern day narrator with historical events set in India. With her latest, The Girl in the Painting, D’Silva tackles guilt, forgiveness and sati – when a husband dies, his widow burns with his body on the funeral pyre. It is her emotionally toughest novel yet and handled with sensitivity and balance.
This is the story of three women – Margaret, Archana and Emma – pre-Great War in England, India in 1918 and England 2000. At the beginning, each woman is introduced in short chapters which made me long to dwell a while with each in turn, rather than jumping around. I was puzzled at how these three women, so different from each other, could be connected. Each has a deep sense of duty that, despite a longing to make her own decisions, is an anchor to a sometimes unwelcome, difficult, reality. Yet being impulsive and taking decisions without consideration for others often has far-reaching consequences. The early 20thcentury was a pivotal time in world history and a period of rapid change in the lives of women. Margaret’s family is separated tragically by war, Archana’s by impulsive love; both separations deeply affect these two young girls and reverberate throughout their whole lives. It is Emma in modern-day England who faces a moral and emotional decision of her own, who travels to India with her daughter to cast light on the story.
The emotional connection really kicked in for me when Margaret and Archana meet at the halfway point in the book. From that point, I didn’t want to put the book down. The parallel struggles in Margaret and Archana’s early lives, even though thousands of miles apart, demonstrate the commonality of being human. Tragedy does not strike the undeserving, the old, the unlikeable, the lazy; it strikes everyone without selection. But D’Silva’s story is not about tragedy; it is about what comes next, about taking a deep breath and moving forward.
There is an evocative portrayal of Archana’s village life, the daily grind of poverty juxtaposed with the fertility of flowers and fruits, exotic colours and birds; and the picture of slum children in Bombay who live beside the railway tracks. Neither is romanticised. I also enjoyed Margaret’s time as an artist and her transition to India, using her art as a promotional tool in the fight for Independence. The story covers a lot of history and there were times when I would have liked to immerse myself in a period, but the characters move onwards.
Given the title, The Girl in the Painting, I assumed the front cover design was of the specific painting. In fact there are a number of portraits in the novel and in my imagination none looks like the cover. So I prefer to think it is a portrait of Margaret in the garden at Charleston, welcomed by the Bloomsbury Group, free to allow her art to flourish, free to allow love to walk in the door and surprise her.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE GIRL IN THE PAINTING by @RenitaDSilva #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3Tk via @SandraDanby