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Where The Bulbul Sings by Serena Fairfax

April 07, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 174

At the core of this book is what it means to be an Anglo-Indian (a distinct, mixed- ethnicity community) and this provides a compelling thematic backbone. I can honestly say that it opened my eyes to issues about which I knew relatively nothing. Set in India the novel has a complex, interwoven plot and a dynamic clutch of characters projected against the turbulent last days of the Raj and the magnetism of the present day.

Hermie is a sassy, 17 year old Anglo-Indian living in a parochial railway town. Determined to escape the shackles of her family circumstances and what she perceives to be the limitations of her community, she masterminds a move to New Delhi where she sets about re-inventing herself. Here she's sustained in almost catastrophic meltdown by her friendship with forthright, cool-headed Edith, exiled from her comfortable upper- class home in Germany by Nazi persecution and who, fleeing to Australia, is detained en route in India as an enemy alien by the British government when war is declared. Both must find a new way to live and together they have an extraordinary tale to tell as their lives change direction under the influence of contemporary events.

Where The Bulbul Sings is a book of two halves. The first part takes the reader on a roller coaster journey with Hermie and Edith to middle-age. In the second half there's a bruising and edgy quest for roots by Kay, pulled to India from her suburban English life. Secrets are uncovered, lies exposed, happiness imperilled. Both parts are skilfully spliced in a rich mosaic and the author's research into the obscure Anglo-Indian community is expertly knitted in without ever sounding like a raucous brass band.

The plot moves forward confidently and insightfully through family ties and obligations, ambition, dilemmas, ruthlessness, longing, losses and love via diverse atmospheric, poignant and glamorous rural and urban scenarios. The rigidity of caste and creed, the courage to cross boundaries, and the moral uncertainties sweep the reader along in an exotic page-turner. Serena Fairfax is also bold enough to go into slightly taboo and shocking territory and the sources of narrative tension are strong and varied.

The protagonists, gutsy yet vulnerable and flawed, cast their spell. Secondary characters are intriguing crowd-pleasers. What's well handled is Hermie and Edith's growth to maturity and the gradual onset of old age without affecting the fundamentals of their character.

The fact that the novel is set against such a sweeping timeframe signals an opportunity - and challenge. Often the author does a good job working a reference to time that has passed seamlessly into the fabric of the narrative, but there are parts where it's clunky. Then there are instances where the writing warrants kneading into a tighter entity, although this is counter-balanced by the freshness of the dialogue, the versatility of the narrative and the compelling story-line. And the book's not without humour and sly one-liners. The novel's closure is romantically satisfying.

I can see this book taken up as a film adaptation or TV mini series. Serena Fairfax's first two novels, Strange Inheritance and Paint Me A Dream were category romances that were inevitably critically ignored. Where The Bulbul Sings, available in paperback and as an eBook, is a departure and doesn't disappoint.

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