The work of the historical novel illuminates the past to light our way to the present. By immersing us in older worlds, showing what characters took for granted as inevitable then, time-traveling historicals help us wonder what we take for granted now. What absurdities and social sins do we unconsciously follow and absorb? How do we maneuver manners, political upheaval, and the tension between social change and private life? This autumn, Booked and Printed examines two young women protagonists facing those questions. Both investigate the tensions of a time and place through their proximity to a mystery.
In the vast India of the 1920s, change is rippling through the colony. Perveen Mistry embodies a previously unthinkable role: Bombay’s first woman lawyer, trained in England. Hers is a lonely position, with few cases
to take on in earnest, until the British Raj calls upon her to investigate a succession dispute. The fact of her gender, previously a barrier to work, becomes a benefit: In the fictional kingdom of Satapur, the women rulers observe purdah, screening themselves away from men. Only Mistry can gain access to the Satapur palace on behalf of the British colonizers. She braves a difficult journey to investigate why two young princes have ended up dead and to determine what should become of the youngest remaining prince in the care of his combative mother and grandmother.
This is the second Perveen Mistry installment by author Sujata Massey, here engaging readers in complex royal intrigue. Readers will find striking physical and psychological details of an India in transition, w
ith class and colonial hierarchies infusing even the smallest of interactions. Mistry meets a British-trained, Indian engineer who’s grown resentful of his low position back home, and she observes the troubling crosscurrents of mistreatment he encounters and perpetuates. “Prejudice in India was not as simple as whites lording it over Indians. The sickness was also spread by Indians ranking one another in terms of skin shade, religion, and mother tongue.”
We learn that Indian rulers “bought fleets of Mercedes and Rolls-Royces to prove they had more wealth than the British officers who controlled them,” and we witness the barefoot, lower-caste men who physically carry Mistry in a palanquin, a human-powered litter, through the hazardous jungle. Her guilt at their hard work an
d suffering does not prevent her from agreeing to be carried, knowing how she must present as clean and high-class to the royals. When the palanquin breaks, and Mistry must walk, the Satapur women rulers at first refuse her entrance, then require her to bathe four times, a series of ablutions carried out by a meek, long-suffering servant.
Perveen Mistry is an intriguing, complicated narrator: a taboo-breaking, critical thinker who nonetheless sympathizes with British rule during a time of rising anticolonial self-determination among her fellow citizens. As her publisher notes, Mistry is based on a real-life woman, Cornelia Sorabji, an Oxford-trained attorney who opposed Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom movement against the British. The pleasure in following Mistry’s parallel quest is not necessarily in the whodunit, or the who-inherits. The plot of murder and succession unfolds with slow deliberation toward a final revelation, taking us deep into a history of regal resentments and colonial rule. The Satapur Moonstone (Soho Crime, $26.95) rewards the reader seeking, instead of speed and surprise, a meticulous engagement with another era, and another country, whose conflicts of power reverberate into the contemporary.
Three decades later, 1958 Atlanta, Georgia is a new world for Ruth Robb, a teenager uprooted from New York City after her father’s death. Her mother, a rebellious reporter, returns to her upper-class life in the American South, where Robb learns new traditions of courtesy, romance, and racism.
In Susan Kaplan Carlton’s young adult novel, In the Neighborhood of True (Algonquin, $17.95), Robb witnesses a stubborn set of traditions in a changing country. In her new high school, a history teacher admonishes Robb to call the Civil War a war of “Northern aggression.” At home, her grandmother, Fontaine, “mouthed ‘Jewish’ like it was a curse word.”
The book opens with a tense courtroom scene, where Robb must face the accused—her onetime boyfriend, Davis Jefferson. She wavers about testifying against him in front of the community that once accepted her. Succeeding chapters take us months into the past, giving the Southern scenes the feel of an autopsy. Signs of the criminal presence of prejudice and racism appear in even the most idyllic of moments: Robb watches black moviegoers pushed to the uppermost edges of the theater, away from whites. Her grandmother teachers her the concept of the “five o’clock shadow:” “After five o’clock, people like to socialize with their own kind.” The facilities for black social clubs are “nonexistent,” or “decrepit.”
Robb learns that to flirt with a boy, gain access to the finest social clubs, and accept invitations to parties, she should hide the fact of her own Jewish heritage—an increasingly difficult proposition. At her mother’s urging, Robb grudgingly begins her weekend attendance at synagogue, where she and the small congregation listen to the rabbi’s sermons advocating for integration. The synagogue becomes the scene of a hate crime, forcing Robb to reconcile her desire to belong with her own role in defying the everyday hatred surrounding her.
Carlton skillfully evokes a young woman’s emerging sexuality, with Robb coming of age during a tense time nearing the Civil Rights era. Her frank desire for Davis helps us understand why she might want to pass as non-Jewish for the rewards of romantic connection. “The kissing—the anticipation and then the actual, factual action—flooded sunshine into every corner of my mind. The kissing made me feel less tangled. The kissing made me feel like I could waltz right into a happy, uncomplicated southern life.” On the witness chair, with the evidence of Davis’s complicity in her mind, Robb must face the limits of romantic love’s power and choose what loyalty to exercise to her own vulnerable, targeted community. By showing a Jewish teenager in trial, in a region of America that called its policies of exclusion “heritage,” Carlton portrays enduring questions of belonging and justice that still trouble the country today.