Peg Kingman

"Not Yet Drown'd"

(Reviewed by Lori Lamothe JAN 1, 2009)

Not Yet Drown'd by Peg Kingman

When Catherine MacDonald returns home from a party to find a mysterious parcel addressed to her in Gaelic, she cannot determine where or why it appeared—nor can she understand what its true meaning is. For the past several months she has been staying at her brother Hector’s home in Edinburgh, living the tame life of a proper nineteenth-century Scottish widow. But the parcel – which contains a Kashmiri shawl, an ornate caddy of strange tea, and a sheaf of bagpipe music in her dead twin brother’s handwriting – sets in motion a series of events that transform Catherine’s life entirely. One of the musical scores, “Sandy’s Tune,” a song her twin composed himself, has been retitled “Not Yet Drown’d.” Whereas her mechanically-minded brother Hector dismisses the discrepancy as nothing more than a careless mistake, Catherine views it as a confirmation of what she has always felt: that her twin never did drown in the monsoon floods of 1821, as East India Company officials had informed her. Sandy, a consummate trickster, has somehow tricked even death; the shawl, the tea and the music are all part of a puzzle that Catherine must solve if she wants to find him.

In an effort to do so, she soon finds herself sailing for India along with an odd mix of companions, including her eight-year-old stepdaughter and her two maids: one a young Indian woman who seems to know more than she is telling, and the other a runaway slave called “Annie Bad.” As Catherine sails further south she comments on the unusual “new notes” her Hindu maid hums, only to be told that the notes aren’t new at all, but old: they are the notes that fall between the keys of the pianoforte, lost to the West. Unlike several of her fellow Europeans, who hear in these ancient cadences nothing but noise, Catherine is drawn to the melodies and to the place where they originated. She senses a connection between the seeming opposites of Scotland and India, between the music of her beloved highlands and the songs of the mist-covered hills of Meghalaya. And just maybe, Catherine reasons, she isn’t the first MacDonald to experience that same connection. “To India, where one might find the things that were lost: lost notes, lost colors—perhaps even a lost brother.” Catherine’s search will ultimately lead her to discover other things as well: danger, deception and betrayal, but also friendship and even love.

Thus begins Peg Kingman’s impressive debut novel, which takes the reader on a journey from Scotland to South Africa to India. Like the vast piece of canvaswork that Catherine is forever embroidering, Not Yet Drown’d is an intricately woven tapestry rich with unfamiliar landscapes and original characters. Though the novel can be slow-paced at times, this is in part because of the wealth of historical detail that is in abundance throughout the book. Not Yet Drown’d includes steamship diagrams, maps, minute descriptions of tea plants, and actual musical scores for bagpipe music—not to mention some very interesting history about the East India Company’s involvement in the opium trade. The multiplicity of details ultimately coheres to give the novel a solid grounding in the nineteenth-century, as well as a sense of breadth. Not only did I learn more than I ever cared to about steamship engines, but I also came away from the novel with a smattering of knowledge about Indian chess, shipboard rites at the Equator, South African settlers’ efforts to harness zebras, the impostor poet “Ossian” and many other intriguing yet arcane facts.

Not Yet Drown’d is definitely worth reading, but be sure to approach the endeavor with the right mindset. This novel isn’t a fast read and Catherine’s romance isn’t the usual type, in part because neither is the hero who comes to her “rescue.” It’s the sort of book to be experienced in the same way that fine tea should be, not drunk in a gulp but savored. Kingman’s style and her meticulous research remind me of Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal and, to a lesser degree, her book of short stories, Servants of the Map. In all three cases I get the sense that the authors are less concerned with sales than with telling the story they want to tell—and telling it well.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews


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About the Author:

Peg KingmanPeg Kingman is a fourth-generation Californian, and has lived and traveled in the United States, Scotland, France, India and New Zealand. She worked for many years as a technical writer in the high-tech, medical, environmental and marketing fields, and now lives with her husband and teenaged sons on a mountaintop in northern California. She continues to play bagpipe, grow tea, and write.

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