If you’re looking for something fresh that offers variety and suspense in storytelling, Sujata Massey’s latest book, India Gray: Historical Fiction, is the perfect read. Even if the genre isn’t your first choice for reading material, Massey’s writing is so fluid and captivating that her smartly-drawn characters—definitely products of their time—are easy to love for who they are and what they champion: truth, love, compassion, and determination.
The book contains two novellas and two short stories that offer something for everyone. Each of the four stories features a strong female lead that demands the reader’s attention, supporting characters that satisfy, and conflicts that intrigue.
“Outnumbered” is a novella set in 1919 at St. Hilda’s and Balliol Colleges at Oxford. Perveen Mistry of Bombay, a law student with a secret, and her lively friend, mathematics student the Honourable Alice Hobson-Jones, are drawn into a missing person case when an Indian domestic disappears along with a male student’s proprietary paper.
Like characters in good buddy stories, Perveen and Alice turn stuffy Oxford on its heels and deliver the yin and the yang that make the story fun. Watch out for a good amount of intellectual adventurousness tempered by a dash of daredevil decorum in the pursuit of truth.
The novella, however, happily is not the end of Perveen and Alice, who are slated to star in their own series. In late 2015, Massey signed a contract with Soho Crime, and the series will be set in Bombay where Perveen has returned to her father’s law practice. There she’ll encounter “all kinds of fascinating characters and clients,” according Massey. Alice tags along to give her a hand as they tackle cases drawn from real events of the time. Look for the first book in 2017.
The second novella in the collection is “The Ayah’s Tale,” a story that heartbreakingly demonstrates the triumphs and failings of humans delicately bound by relationships complicated by race, education, culture, and colonialism. “The Ayah’s Tale” was originally published as a standalone novella by Sujata Massey and Ikat Press in 2013.
In 1952 Malaya, a collection of stories by a British war hero stuns Menakshi because the author writes of his childhood in India when she was his caregiver.
As she reads, Menakshi is swept back to the 1920s when she was a 16-year old ruled not only by the Raj but also by Julian’s cruelly-domineering mother and unsympathetic father. Alternating between Julian’s stories and Menakshi’s own memories, the full picture of her dashed personal dreams and love for the children are laid bare against the lavishness and deception within the household.
Readers who enjoyed Massey’s The Sleeping Dictionary (IC, September 2014) will be pleased to read “India Gray,” a short story featuring Kamala, the steadfast heroine of the novel, and her husband, Simon Lewes.
The year is 1945, and as a high-ranking British official with the Indian Civil Service, Simon is temporarily moved from Calcutta to an Allied military installation in Assam. Never one to rest, Kamala joins him, volunteering to work at the Allied hospital. There she learns that wounded prisoners of war—members of the Japanese-supported India National Army—are treated and held until their sentences have been decided.
Kamala’s innate compassion, coupled with being the wife of the man who will decide the prisoners’ fates, puts her in a challenging situation with hospital personnel and Simon.
When asked about a sequel to her novel, Massey said, “a full sequel … is years away because [I’m] so busy with Perveen and Alice and their series.” Alas, this is a catch-22 simply because a “Dictionary” sequel would be wonderful, but the new series is thoroughly appealing.
Taking a leap into more recent memory, the short story “Bitter Tea” moves us to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier when the Taliban imposed their strict religious laws on villages. This story originally appeared titled “The Mayor’s Movie” in the short story anthology Politics Noir: Dark Tales From the Corridors of Power, edited by Gary Philips and published by Verso in 2008. In the story, fourteen-year old Shazia, annoyed that she can neither go to school nor leave the house (unless covered by a burka and accompanied by a male), discovers that a friend and her friend’s mother have been forced into a situation that could be dangerous.
Restless but determined to find a way to rescue them, Shazia and her trusted cousins devise a bold plan to free Farida and her mother. With that plan comes the knowledge that failure will result in the worst of all punishments. A simple twist of fate, however, shocks them all.
Sujata Massey is a seasoned author with eleven books in her popular Rei Shimura series plus her superb aforementioned entrance into India-centric historical fiction. Despite her publishing prowess, India Gray: Historical Fiction is a departure for her because it is self-published under her own Ikat Press imprint.
Aside from having a traditional publishing history, her motive for self-publishing is simple: “It allows me to publish more frequently … material that might not seem profitable to a publisher,” she explained.
To maintain the quality of her traditionally-published books, she personally hires independent pre-production personnel. The result is this beautiful and inspiring collection of extraordinary female protagonists that well represent their histories and cultures.
Crafted with Massey’s special brand of mystery, this volume is a gem that might otherwise have gone unexcavated.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is the managing editor of a monthly newspaper and is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association. Between assignments, she writes fiction, hunts for the perfect Bloody Mary, and heads to the beach as often as she can.