It was just a few years ago that I wrote a review of Overlook Press's first publication by Penny Vincenzi, the British novelist who was a sensation in her home country but still virtually unknown in the States. Since then, Vincenzi's multi-generational family sagas have become deservedly successful in this country as well. Now Overlook has done it again, picking up the backlist of British author Rosie Thomas. While some of her books already have been published in the US, American readers will not be as familiar with her as those across the pond are. Thomas's writing is very different from Vincenzi's, but her novels likely will be equally absorbing to non-British audiences.
"THE KASHMIR SHAWL is mysterious, romantic, and full of emotional and sexual tension. Here's hoping that Thomas will be taking us on many more literary journeys in the not-too-distant future."
First up from Overlook is THE KASHMIR SHAWL, originally published in the UK in 2011. Thomas is well known for setting her romantic, adventurous plots in scenic and exotic locations around the world, and this novel is no different. It’s a family story as well as a love story, set in a part of the world that is no stranger to political and cultural conflict.
The book opens as Mair Ellis grieves the recent loss of her father. Unlike her siblings, Mair has always felt aimless, unmoored --- she even joined the circus for a while when she was a bit younger! Romance, or at least a long-term relationship, has proved elusive for her, and without her father to care for, she's free to roam the world. This is exactly what she does when, among her father's things, she finds an exquisite shawl that once belonged to her grandmother, Nerys. Armed only with a handful of clues, Mair decides to search out the story of the shawl --- and her family history --- by retracing a journey her grandmother took when she was a young missionary's wife in 1940s India.
The narrative of Mair's travels intersects with Nerys's own story as Thomas travels back and forth in time, gradually revealing Nerys's remarkable life in Kashmir both through accounts of that historic period and through Mair's research, which eventually leads her to a British woman who knew her grandmother --- and who has secrets of her own.
Thomas has an obvious affection for this beautiful and little-known part of the world; her descriptions of the lush landscape and vibrant culture are alluring and romantic. The author is known for traveling to the countries about which she writes and gaining first-hand knowledge of their places and people, and that kind of intimacy shines through this book. Unfortunately, because both Mair's and Nerys's stories are told from the point of view of a Western outsider, the reader doesn’t really get an accurate sense of what the region's native peoples are like and how they view their homeland (not to mention their colonizers). That being said, Thomas does an admirable job of illustrating the complexities and conflicts --- both personal and geopolitical --- that have continued to dog this region for many years.
THE KASHMIR SHAWL is mysterious, romantic, and full of emotional and sexual tension. Here's hoping that Thomas will be taking us on many more literary journeys in the not-too-distant future.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 11, 2013
The Kashmir Shawl