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Historical Fiction : Recommended reads set in the Spanish Civil War & Colonial India

BOTA-AW-smallAndalusia 1938

During the Spanish Civil War,  Professor Pinzon and his young grandson are taken hostage by Republican soldiers and imprisoned in an old church. The church is built upon an even more ancient Moorish site, and so begins a dual narrative, set in medieval Andaluz and in 20th century Spain – two interlinked tragic stories told 100 years apart.

The characters in this book are extremely believable. It portrays with chilling accuracy the warring factions who have gone too far down the road of terrorism to retreat, and yet are still all too human.These men are juxtaposed with the innocents caught up unwittingly as hostages; men women and children who hang on to the hope that some vestige of humanity, or reasonable behaviour, will prevail. This drama is set against a previous war, back when Christianity obliterated the Muslim culture, and the two stories reflect and inform each other in a very satisfying way – each lending depth to the other. The novel explores what it means in Spain to be a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim, and how earlier history has shaped later events.

This is a page-turner – gripping and well-written, with a nod to mysticism and how the ways of wisdom embedded in architecture. The dialogue is particularly good; I felt I could acrtually hear the characters speak. The only weakness in this book was the inevitable one in a dual narrative – there is always one story I tend to favour over the other, and this time it was the more modern story that held my interest. But for you, it might be different!

As a writer, if you are interested in how to weave two different time-frames together, then this is a fine example of how to include two cultures in one book and make them different and distinct.

strangler-vineColonial India 1837

A young naive recruit to the English Army, William Avery, is given the task of tracking down Xavier Mountstuart, a disgraced agent who has, they fear, ‘gone native.’ He is accompanied on this trek through the jungles of India by his worst nightmare – Jeremiah Blake, a scruffy unkempt individual, who refuses to play by army rules, and holds a sceptical, not to say caustic, view of the whole enterprise.

The heart of this book is a disappearance, and a quest through dangerous Thugee territory (Thugees being supoosed gangs of native assassins).We follow Blake and Avery to Maharajah’s palaces, to army camps ruled with iron grip by despotic Majors, and to salons of women obsessed by marriage with no real understanding of Hindu culture. We are given a down-to-earth and very well-researched portrait of India at this time, and of the weaknesses of the East India Company in particular.

Although described on the back as a ‘rip-roaring romp’ – I  found it to be a much more thoughtful read. The descriptions of Indian life are detailed and specific. Avery and Blake are a great partnership – always at war with each other, yet each having his particular strengths. This is a novel where nobody is what he seems, and this is one of its delights. Towards the end, we unravel the double-dealing, the hypocrisy and the betrayal that as a reader, I always suspected lay just beneath the surface. So this is skilful writing, to convey the shifting of allegiances in such a subtle way.

One set piece near the end seemed just a little too easy, and the pair’s escape from a trap just a little too conveniently staged. Yet all in all, this was an excellent read, a real evocation of the stifling heat not just of India, but also of the British Army, and I recommend it.