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review 2015-06-12 13:33
Jane Eyre stars in Gone With The Wind in India - Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald
Zemindar - Valerie Fitzgerald

Laura Hewitt has no great desire to accompany her cousin Emily to India, not least because Laura is slightly in love with Emily's new husband Charles. Even so, she's fascinated, desperate to see the 'real' India, and eager to learn everything she can about the country. With Emily and Charles, she journeys from Calcutta to the estate of Charles' half-brother, Oliver Erskine, the fabled Zemindar who runs his land as his own private fiefdom. But with mutiny and war stirring, will any of them remain safe>

 

Although slow to get going, Zemindar is initially fascinating. The slow progress from ship to land to country gives a tour of the British Raj. It's largely the type of thing you'll find elsewhere - all the usual characters are here, from the Ladies Who Maintain The British Way, to the Faithful Indian Servent - but touched with moments I suspect Fitzgerald may have drawn from her own family history. It is these details which make the book worth reading - the first-hand accounts characters give each other of what they have witnessed. I only have a broad general overview of this period of history; I found the details of life in India at that time hugely interesting.

  

In many ways, Zemindar is like Gone With The Wind, and not just for the overload of historically appropriate casual racism/colonialism. There's a fairly generous mirroring of a number of GOTWs plot points but thanks to the powerfully written backdrop this is less of an issue than it might otherwise have been. Unfortunately, the second half is just so ... very ... boring. 

 

The meat of the story lies in the siege of Lucknow, when the Brits hole up in the Governor's residence to defend against the rebelling populace. It's an astonishing story in many ways, but one which could have likely been done justice in fewer than 400 pages. While there are plenty of engaging - and horrific - bits, there are also enough dull parts for me to have gone away to read something else at 85%, then had to really force myself to come back to finish it. At 89% I went and looked up the Siege of Lucknow on Wikipedia, realised there were still weeks of the damn thing to go, and almost quit again. It wasn't just the romance, of which I am not the greatest fan anyway, but the limited amount of things which can happen while everybody was sitting around with very little food for 6 months. 

 

I persevered, mainly because when I've read that much of such a long book already I'm determined to get to the end. It wasn't worth it. The romance elements come together in the way of a book which has a single loose end to wrap up and is determined to get it done quickly. The challenges facing the characters were good (and interesting) ones, but the resolution was desperately weak. 

 

Zemindar was originally published in 1981 - it's recently been rereleased by UK house Head of Zeus - and I feel it bears the scars of that. It has more in common with those epic doorstops of the time such as M M Kaye's The Far Pavilions and James Clavell's Gai-jin (which I cite rather than Shogun because it's the only one of his I've read). I, however, judge it as a modern reader and my judgement is that the one this this world doesn't need is a reprint of yet another book starring a plucky woman of the British Empire showing how completely un-racist she thinks she is in other peoples' drawing rooms. There are plenty of books which do this sort of thing no less problematically to my modern eye; why resurrect this one?

 

While I enjoyed the first half and got through it quickly, largely because I'd put my back out and couldn't do anything else but read, the second half was dull and the last 20% as boring as a large piece of apparatus designed for such a task. Thanks to its length you get your monies worth long before it becomes so and for that reason alone I won't steer anybody who loves the aforementioned books away from it, but don't feel bad if you quit before the end.

 

1.5 stars.

 

 

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review 2014-09-01 05:45
Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald
Zemindar - Valerie Fitzgerald

This cross between historical fiction and romance would be an ideal choice for someone who loves historical fiction but is ambivalent about romance novels. While the romantic subplot feels like traditional genre romance (at least to me, with my limited knowledge of the genre), the historical plot dominates the book and is fascinating in its own right.

 

Here’s the story: an Englishwoman, Laura Hewitt, travels to India in the 1850s as a chaperone for her younger cousin. Unfortunately for her party, they’ve arrived at precisely the wrong time, just when tensions between the Indian army and their colonial rulers reach the boiling point, and Laura gets caught up in the siege of Lucknow. Meanwhile she meets Oliver, the “zemindar” of the title – despite being English, he’s a wealthy hereditary landowner in northern India, and an eligible bachelor to boot.

 

Zemindar is a very long book, at a hefty 763 pages; it uses its length to great effect, fully immersing the reader in Laura’s world, but it does take time to get started. The first 300 or so pages are devoted to establishing the cast and their relationships, traveling around India and experiencing British life there, all before any real danger appears. Once the violence begins though, there’s no going back. Fitzgerald develops all her scenes in full sensory and emotional detail, and she chose some intense material to work with. It is a great adventure story, for all that Laura keeps to her role as a 19th century lady. But it has an acuity that elevates it above the general run of historical fiction. For instance, here is Laura upon saying good-bye to the other passengers on the ship from England:

 

“I felt curiously lonely and lost standing at the rail for the last time as the shadows grew long and the swift dusk descended. Our time aboard had been a little lifetime in itself, distinct from everything that had gone before and from everything that would follow. Soon it would have no more importance [. . .] The tide of daily life would soon wash over the small indentations left by their personalities upon ours and ours upon theirs; in a matter of months we would find it difficult to remember their names, impossible to recall their faces and would have forgotten, most probably, even those things that most irritated or annoyed us in each other, and that had sometimes assumed such disproportionate significance during the confinement of the long voyage.”

 

The writing, as is evident in that passage, is assured and slightly formal, imbuing Laura with a believable 19th century voice; it is not, however, concise, and you’ll only want to pick this one up if you’re ready to settle in with it for a good while. Still, it never feels padded or repetitious: there’s simply a lot of material and the author chose not to stint on it.

 

Two reasons this book rates only 3.5 stars then. First, while the secondary characters are colorful and intriguing, the main pair have what I can only describe as “romance novel characterization.” We’re meant to identify with and admire Laura, and in that respect the author succeeds; she is a strong character with a believable interior life. And Fitzgerald doesn’t fall too far into clichés or fantasy; Laura is described as plain throughout (though several men fall in love with her, she’s never discovered to be physically beautiful), and we see her dirty and sweaty and irritable. But despite her resilience, she isn’t a particularly interesting character, nor a realistic one. Even after 763 pages, I can’t imagine what she would be like in real life. And some aspects of her behavior feel created deliberately to make her the ideal partner for Oliver. He has a similar problem: while instantly recognizable as a leading man, he doesn’t as much resemble an actual one.

 

The second issue is that, for all that the leads talk about the importance of understanding Indian culture, this is a colonialist sort of book. Despite being set entirely in India, it has no Indian major characters and only a few minor ones, all but one of whom are servants. Even Oliver, whose sympathies fall more with the Indians than the British, argues that they’re incapable of governing themselves. That said, the comparisons to Gone With the Wind – while accurate in terms of the exciting and detailed depiction of a historical era – might overemphasize this point. The book is never overtly racist and the author presents a fairly balanced picture of the war. In one of the book’s sadder moments (and there are a lot of these as the reality of war kicks in), a young, dying English soldier, who lost his sister to a massacre a few months before, brags that he made 16 Indians “remember” her. But it’s clear to Laura and the reader that he did nothing of the sort; he just murdered a bunch of innocent people, perpetuating a cycle of violence in which both sides feel themselves the victims and the others' violence unprovoked.

 

At any rate, this is a solid historical fiction/adventure/romance, highly recommended to those of you who enjoy this sort of thing, especially if you care more that your protagonists be likeable than that they be realistic. I’m surprised to find it out of print; it earned the $1 I spent at a library book sale many times over.

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review 2014-08-27 00:00
Zemindar
Zemindar - Valerie Fitzgerald This cross between historical fiction and romance would be an ideal choice for someone who loves historical fiction but is ambivalent about romance novels. While the romantic subplot feels like traditional genre romance (at least to me, with my limited knowledge of the genre), the historical plot dominates the book and is fascinating in its own right.

Here’s the story: an Englishwoman, Laura Hewitt, travels to India in the 1850s as a chaperone for her younger cousin. Unfortunately for her party, they’ve arrived at precisely the wrong time, just when tensions between the Indian army and their colonial rulers reach the boiling point, and Laura gets caught up in the siege of Lucknow. Meanwhile she meets Oliver, the “zemindar” of the title – despite being English, he’s a wealthy hereditary landowner in northern India, and an eligible bachelor to boot.

Zemindar is a very long book, at a hefty 763 pages; it uses its length to great effect, fully immersing the reader in Laura’s world, but it does take time to get started. The first 300 or so pages are devoted to establishing the cast and their relationships, traveling around India and experiencing British life there, all before any real danger appears. Once the violence begins though, there’s no going back. Fitzgerald develops all her scenes in full sensory and emotional detail, and she chose some intense material to work with. It is a great adventure story, for all that Laura keeps to her role as a 19th century lady. But it has an acuity that elevates it above the general run of historical fiction. For instance, here is Laura upon saying good-bye to the other passengers on the ship from England:

“I felt curiously lonely and lost standing at the rail for the last time as the shadows grew long and the swift dusk descended. Our time aboard had been a little lifetime in itself, distinct from everything that had gone before and from everything that would follow. Soon it would have no more importance [. . .] The tide of daily life would soon wash over the small indentations left by their personalities upon ours and ours upon theirs; in a matter of months we would find it difficult to remember their names, impossible to recall their faces and would have forgotten, most probably, even those things that most irritated or annoyed us in each other, and that had sometimes assumed such disproportionate significance during the confinement of the long voyage.”

The writing, as is evident in that passage, is assured and slightly formal, imbuing Laura with a believable 19th century voice; it is not, however, concise, and you’ll only want to pick this one up if you’re ready to settle in with it for a good while. Still, it never feels padded or repetitious: there’s simply a lot of material and the author chose not to stint on it.

Two reasons this book rates only 3.5 stars then. First, while the secondary characters are colorful and intriguing, the main pair have what I can only describe as “romance novel characterization.” We’re meant to identify with and admire Laura, and in that respect the author succeeds; she is a strong character with a believable interior life. And Fitzgerald doesn’t fall too far into clichés or fantasy; Laura is described as plain throughout (though several men fall in love with her, she’s never discovered to be physically beautiful), and we see her dirty and sweaty and irritable. But despite her resilience, she isn’t a particularly interesting character, nor a realistic one. Even after 763 pages, I can’t imagine what she would be like in real life. And some aspects of her behavior feel created deliberately to make her the ideal partner for Oliver. He has a similar problem: while instantly recognizable as a leading man, he doesn’t as much resemble an actual one.

The second issue is that, for all that the leads talk about the importance of understanding Indian culture, this is a colonialist sort of book. Despite being set entirely in India, it has no Indian major characters and only a few minor ones, all but one of whom are servants. Even Oliver, whose sympathies fall more with the Indians than the British, argues that they’re incapable of governing themselves. That said, the comparisons to Gone With the Wind – while accurate in terms of the exciting and detailed depiction of a historical era – might overemphasize this point. The book is never overtly racist and the author presents a fairly balanced picture of the war. In one of the book’s sadder moments (and there are a lot of these as the reality of war kicks in), a young, dying English soldier, who lost his sister to a massacre a few months before, brags that he made 16 Indians “remember” her. But it’s clear to Laura and the reader that he did nothing of the sort; he just murdered a bunch of innocent people, perpetuating a cycle of violence in which both sides feel themselves the victims and the others' violence unprovoked.

At any rate, this is a solid historical fiction/adventure/romance, highly recommended to those of you who enjoy this sort of thing, especially if you care more that your protagonists be likeable than that they be realistic. I’m surprised to find it out of print; it earned the $1 I spent at a library book sale many times over.
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review 2007-01-01 00:00
Zemindar - Valerie Fitzgerald I just had to sit back and say WOW!! at the end of this book. This was just outstanding,and I am sorry there was never a sequel and very sorry this author never wrote again. An incredible tale of Laura the poor relation on a journey to India with her newly married cousin Emily and her husband Charles (who Laura thought herself in love with). The book really has a Jane Eyre feel to it, neither the heroine or hero are out and out drop dead good looking, just strong, honorable people we come to care about. As they travel through India on the way to Lucknow in northern India we meet many characters as the author sets up her stage to the Sepoy rebellion and the seige of Lucknow. Also introduced is Charles' half brother Oliver Erskine, a Zemindar, or large land holder. Eventually Oliver and Laura fall in love, and are separated at Lucknow (after a harrowing escape from Oliver's estate after the rebellion). Oh, when Oliver said to Laura, "I will come back to you, for you". The rest of the book follows the harrowing conditions at the residency at Lucknow during the seige, the battles, deaths and brutal conditions suffered by the British. Be warned that this was a very brutal rebellion and some of the scenes described, although accurate, can be a bit gory, but important history to be reminded of and the mistakes that were made by ignorant pompous officials and the brutalities committed on both sides due to hate, ignorance and prejudice. It's unfortunate that we do not learn well from history and things are still so much the same in the Middle East in our present time. The thing I liked most about this book was the author's lovely prose and characters. I felt like I was reading Jane Eyre or Villette, she reminded me so much of Charlotte Bronte, particularly at the end with the letters Oliver and Laura exchanged and when they were finally reunited. You definitely want to set aside quiet time(no kids, dogs or phone) for the last 50 or so pages so that you can savor every lovely word and emotion. Highly highly recommended for any lover of historical fiction, and would suit well to a younger reader as the love scenes are extremely chaste. I would also recommend MM Kaye's Shadow of the MoonThe same setting, but her characters experienced the rebellion outside of the Residency, so you see a different side of the tale. Both are out of print, but readily available used.
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review 2006-01-01 00:00
Zemindar - Valerie Fitzgerald This was just outstanding,and I am sorry there was never a sequel and very sorry this author never wrote again. An incredible tale of Laura the poor relation on a journey to India with her newly married cousin Emily and her husband Charles (who Laura thought herself in love with). The book really has a Jane Eyre feel to it, neither the heroine or hero are out and out drop dead good looking, just strong, honorable people we come to care about. As they travel through India on the way to Lucknow in northern India we meet many characters as the author sets up her stage to the Sepoy rebellion and the seige of Lucknow. Also introduced is Charles' half brother Oliver Erskine, a Zemindar, or large land holder. Eventually Oliver and Laura fall in love, and are separated at Lucknow (after a harrowing escape from Oliver's estate after the rebellion). Oh, when Oliver said to Laura, "I will come back to you, for you". The rest of the book follows the harrowing conditions at the residency at Lucknow during the seige, the battles, deaths and brutal conditions suffered by the British. Be warned that this was a very brutal rebellion and some of the scenes described, although accurate, can be a bit gory, but important history to be reminded of and the mistakes that were made by ignorant pompous officials and the brutalities committed on both sides due to hate, ignorance and prejudice. It's unfortunate that we do not learn well from history and things are still so much the same in the Middle East in our present time. The thing I liked most about this book was the author's lovely prose and characters. I felt like I was reading Jane Eyre or Villette, she reminded me so much of Charlotte Bronte, particularly at the end with the letters Oliver and Laura exchanged and when they were finally reunited. You definitely want to set aside quiet time(no kids, dogs or phone) for the last 50 or so pages so that you can savor every lovely word and emotion.
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