by M. J. Carter
Reviewed by SA
Historical fiction novels can go one of two ways: they can be long winded and oddly pretentious, usually showing more a stereotypical view of history with characters that seem uncomfortably out of time; or, they can be an exciting glimpse into a fascinating period, a veritable window into the past that brings an entire moment in history back to life. Thankfully, The Strangler Vine is not only a fantastic example of the latter, but also an engrossing novel in its own right.
Summary (thank you, Goodreads)
Calcutta 1837. The East India Company rules India – or most of it; and its most notorious and celebrated son, Xavier Mountstuart, has gone missing.
William Avery, a down-at-heel junior officer in the Company’s army, is sent to find him, in the unlikely company of the enigmatic and uncouth Jeremiah Blake. A more mismatched duo couldn’t be imagined, but they must bury their differences as they are caught up in a search that turns up too many unanswered questions and seems bound to end in failure.
What was it that so captivated Mountstuart about the Thugs, the murderous sect of Kali-worshippers who strangle innocent travelers by the roadside? Who is Jeremiah Blake and can he be trusted? And why is the whole enterprise shrouded in such secrecy?
In the dark heart of Company India, Avery will have to fight for his very life, and in defense of a truth he will wish he had never learned.
I admit that it took me a while to get into the novel, as it begins quiet slow, and admittedly I was jumping to conclusions to where the plot was going. Even so, I found myself engrossed with the narrative, and was pleasantly surprised when the story went off the beaten track. Soon, it showed itself to be a truly unique novel, and at that point it was impossible to put down.
While Avery, our narrator, a young man who has only recently joined the company and for whom India has not been doing any favors, seems almost like a lego block for our own perception to cling to, it was Blake who really stole the show. His relationship with India remains more than something black of white, and is absolutely fascinating. He is just one of the vibrant people in this novel; Carter takes stereotypes and makes them surprise you by being much, much more.
But it is really the dynamic atmosphere of India itself which entrances you. Carter has a magic touch when it comes to bringing nineteenth century India to life, and paints an evocative picture of this moment of time. It is positively gorgeous, though in a stylistic sense, as the author does evoke the worst parts of india as well, the ones we would rather not imagine, the parts which are usually left out of novels such as there.
In a way, this novel reminds me quite a lot of Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) which takes us deep into the heart of the ‘uncivilized’ and introduces us to characters who have given in to the nature of this new land. Call it culture shock, in its most extreme sense, as Avery is dragged into another world, bringing us with him; as we learn more about the mystery of the ‘Thugs’ and attempt to find the truth there; as we try to make sense of this dangerous world.
It is also fascinating how the author draws parallels between his fiction and the truth. Read the historical afterword, as it is an incredible insight into the real men and events that inspired this novel. It reveals the complexity of the plot and shows the amount of research done to build this historically accurate India.
A gorgeous novel, for those looking for an adventure unlike any other.