The Sleeping Dictionary, by Sujata Massey

The Sleeping Dictionary is the best sort of historical fiction: an absorbing story with plenty of detail to immerse you in the time, all supported by an historically accurate framework. Set during the turbulent last days of the British Raj, this is the story of a child who is orphaned when a tsunami sweeps away her village and her family. We follow her struggles to make a place for herself in a world that is not kind to women or to Bengali peasants.

Our narrator's name changes with her circumstances, but her voice is strong enough that we never lose sight of who she is. She starts out as Pom, beloved Didi (older sister) to her siblings. Massey weaves in the foreign words so naturally that I had no need of the glossary provided. There are lovely descriptions of her Hindu family's life on the land that they farmed but did not own.

We had potatoes and eggplants and tomatoes and greens from our own vegetable garden. Fruits beckoned from old abandoned orchards and from neighbors who did not mind sharing. To buy foodstuffs we could not grow, my mother raised a small amount from selling the brooms [she made] in summer and catching fish during rainy season.

As the monsoon approaches, she says, “Stillness precedes the rains: a kind of energy that holds you and everything else motionless. It was holding us then.”

When the flood comes, she happens to be in the woods and survives by climbing a tree. Afterwards, several boats of survivors pass her but are not willing to pick her up, saying they had no room for another. Finally one family grudgingly lets her climb into their boat, but refuses to share their food and water with her and abandons her as soon as they reach land. This is a portent of things to come as she finds sometimes reluctant help, a few generous people, and many more who want to make use of her.

I enjoyed the section where, renamed Sarah and ordered to be a Christian, she works as a servant in an Anglo-Indian school. There, through the kindness of a teacher and a student, she discovers a love of reading and languages. The school's name of Lockwood of course reminded me of Lowood, not the only reference to Jane Eyre. But our heroine finds herself more adrift in the world than prim and passionate Jane. She makes more mistakes, poignantly believing in the kindness of strangers and the lure of appearances.

When she finally makes it to Calcutta and renames herself Kamala, she finds a job but also becomes caught up in the movement to free India from the British Empire. Tempting as it must have been for the author to tell us all about those tumultuous and thrilling times, Massey never loses the story. She limits herself to only what Kamala might know and encounter in the course of her daily life. Thus the historical detail remains organic and never intrudes on the story.

I highly recommend this novel. I've enjoyed Massey's earlier books, award-winning mysteries featuring Rei Shimuri. This big novel reads just as fast and fluently as her mysteries. I loved watching Pom/Kamala remake herself over and over, adapting to new worlds, but never losing sight of what's most important. It's a complex story, giving the flavor of many of the smaller worlds within India during the last days of the Raj, always from a woman's point of view.

What historical novels have you enjoyed?

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