Almost a decade back, I read about this book at John’s Pretty Sinister Books and it immediately went on my wishlist but it is only now, so many years later, that I finally read it.
Lancelot Jones is a young, rather serious young English man on his way to the Indian state of Bandrapore in order to take up his position as a tutor to the young son of the ruler, Mahmoud Kahn (Wonder why so many western writers make the mistake of writing KHAN as KAHN?) En route, his plane develops a snag and the pilot makes an emergency landing in a desert. Is it Thar, the famed desert in the western state of Rajasthan (or Rajputana as it was called during the British Raj)? The pilot has no idea. It might be that they are not in India at all but in Iran! While the pilot tinkers with the plane, Jones seeks refuge in the only house in the nearby vicinity and is surprised to find that the owner is an elderly English lady, Alva Hine.
As the two start chatting, Jones amazes his hostess by telling her that he has no time for novels and poetry. He is rather curious about how Alva Hine came to be living in this place. Alva tells him that it is a pretty long story but since they have time on their hands, she starts narrating her life to him.
Born Blanche Rose in a Victorian middle-class family, Blanche was one among eight children who had to shoulder the responsibility of managing a household when her mother died in childbirth. This brought her close to her father and there developed (from her side) an insidious love for him. When later her father married a much younger and extremely beautiful woman, Blanche could hardly suppress her fury and envy. Soon married off to Oliver, a cousin of her step-mother, Sophia, Blanche finds out something that will hurt her father grievously. She wants to save her father from that shock but is unable to do so when a murder brings the secrets of her family in the open.
While the tale that is being narrated is full of Victorian melodrama, I was also intrigued by the frame-tale. While Jones is being offered all hospitality by Hine is there an ulterior motive behind it? And as her narrative nears the conclusion, one wonders whether Jones would be allowed to get out of the house.
All in all this was an engrossing read that I read virtually in one sitting. If you want to read it, it is available for borrowing at the Internet Archive.
First Line: It was the hour before high noon when the old-fashioned aeroplane that was taking the English tutor from England to the remote little Indian state came out of the vast empty sky and quavered down upon the sun-bleached silent land.
First Published: 1953