"A Black Englishman"
(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JAN 27, 2007)British Raj is on the wane.
When Isabel boards the ship that will take her to another continent, her mother tells her, "You've made your bed now, you'll have to lie on it." A moneyed thoroughbred from a society family in Italy, Isabel's mother married somewhat beneath her, but not by much. Her daughter, on the other hand, looking to escape the terrible sadness of the war's aftermath, hooked-up with a man of pedestrian origins. Neville is "common" in many ways, she will soon learn, unfortunately. Selfish, coarse, a philanderer, he had his own reasons for wanting to get married quickly while on furlough. And Isabel longs to leave the UK and all memories associated with it. She is fleeing from herself and from her lack of wherewithal to begin a life alone.
She could just "howl for the freedom of our youth, our happiness, then, before the war came down on us, so that before you knew it, all that you'd ever known and loved was gone." And, "It (the war) left us broken, unable to go back to where we were, or who we were before, because with all our young men lost and gone, the young girls vanished too."
WWI certainly makes its presence felt here, because if it had not been for that devastating conflict, this extremely bright, independent, university educated young woman of the upper classes would never have married a man like Neville Webb, giving him all power over herself and her future. Fortunately, Isabel's mother thought to set up a private bank account for her daughter in India.
Even before the couple arrives in Ferozepore, Punjab, one of the fourteen provinces of the Raj and their destination, Neville arrogantly attempts to smother all his wife's enthusiasm for the new country, its cultures and languages. "The English people certainly do love India. It's the Indians they can't stand." He is perfectly clear about her adhering strictly to protocol, minding her "p's and q's," no gadding about and no exploring on her own. He also explains he will be gone, with his regiment, the Fifth Royal Gurka Rifles, for almost ten months of the year. There is always trouble on the border with Afghanistan.
Upon the couple's arrival at the cantonment, there is an "unfortunate incident." A British soldier shot and killed his wife and then committed suicide. The woman was having an affair with a native Indian and no one on post appeared surprised at the consequences. Isabel, of course, is shocked, horrified, but the event does not register, apparently. Neville takes off for the border after a few days and his new wife is left to her own devices.
Samresh Singh, an Indian physician educated at the best British schools and graduated, with honors, from Oxford, attends Isabel when she comes down with malaria. Sam, as he is called, is a man of two worlds, and of none. His Hindu lineage is impeccable. He speaks and acts like an English gentleman of the upper classes. Yet he is not Anglo English. He has always been looked down upon by the Brits, patronized by his former schoolmates and by the expatriate community in India. Nor is he an Indian - not after years spent in the UK. And the Indian nationalists look at Sam with disdain. They see him as a traitor to the cause of Independence. Singh is a "Black Englishman."
Isabel and Sam fall deeply in love and share an intellectual, physical and emotional intimacy neither has known before. However, Isabel greatly underestimates her husband's wrath and the extent of his revenge, just as she overestimates her illusory independence as she seeks an identity of her own.
Carolyn Slaughter paints, with beautiful prose, a vivid portrait of India during the last years of the Raj. Along with an accurate depiction of the political unrest of the period, the class system, and the hardships faced by women, both native and European, she gives the reader a wonderful peek at the Indian landscape, especially Northern India, as well as the flavor and color of the local cultures. She seamlessly interweaves the couple's story with historic events. Her characters, especially Isabel, Sam, and an Indian servant, Joseph, are three dimensional, complex and extremely likable.
This is Ms. Slaughter's ninth novel and is based loosely on events in the life of her grandmother, Anne Webb.
Although not in the same league with my favorite Raj fiction, A Passage To India, The Raj Quartet , and The Siege of Krishnapur, this is still an excellent novel; I enjoyed it immensely.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Story of the Weasel (1976)
- Columba (1977)
- Relations (1977)
- Magdalene (1978)
- Dreams fo the Kalahari (181)
- Heart of the River (1982)
- The Banquet (1983)
- A Perfect Woman (1984)
- The Innocents (1986)
- The Widow (1989)
- A Black Englishman (November 2004)
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- Excerpt from Before the Knife
- Curled Up interview with Carolyn Slaughter
- Guardian Unlimited article by Carolyn Slaughter on A Black Englishman
- Reading Guide for A Black Englishman
- Puke Ariki review of A Black Englishman
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About the Author:
Carolyn Slaughter was born in New Delhi, India, and spent most of her childhood in the Kalahari Desert of what is now Botswana in Africa. Soon after leaving Africa in 1961, she wrote what would later become her highly acclaimed novel Dreams of the Kalahari. In 2002, she published a memoir about her real childhood, Under the Knife, in which she was a victim of an unspeakable crime and how she transcended this experience.
After living for many years in London, she moved to the United States with her family in 1986. She works as psychotherapist in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.