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.