A Black Englishman, by Carolyn Slaughter

A maddening love affair with India
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The Independent Culture

Carolyn Slaughter's recent memoir dealt with the sexual abuse she suffered from her father. In her new novel, she has taken another family trauma: her maternal grandmother who went to India after the Great War and was placed, aged 30, in an asylum where she stayed until Indian independence. Transferred to a mental institution in Britain, she lived there until her death in 1984.

Carolyn Slaughter's recent memoir dealt with the sexual abuse she suffered from her father. In her new novel, she has taken another family trauma: her maternal grandmother who went to India after the Great War and was placed, aged 30, in an asylum where she stayed until Indian independence. Transferred to a mental institution in Britain, she lived there until her death in 1984.

The heroine and narrator of the novel shares the same surname - Webb - as the author's grandmother, but differs in that she is determined to survive, even when forcibly sent to the asylum of Ranchi.

Slaughter has acknowledged 17 writers without whom, she says, she could not have contemplated writing about India. They include Forster, Narayan, Rushdie and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, but the author probably owes most to Paul Scott, who first wrote of that uneasy hybrid of the Raj: the English-public-school educated Indian.

The Black Englishman of the title, Dr Sam Singh, a product of Eton and Balliol, has returned to India to work as a doctor, still bearing the scars of schoolroom racial abuse. He is first seen by the narrator, Isabel, as he attends a domestic murder at the cantonment where her husband is posted. It is 1920, and Isabel, in shock after the war in which her fiancé was killed, has made a disastrous marriage on the rebound to Neville Webb, a non-commissioned officer who tells her that he likes killing, and that he's good at it. We know there'll be trouble if Isabel steps out of line.

She does so, falling in love with Dr Singh. They plan how to get together without alerting the servants, and therefore the cantonment. This is achieved by hiding out in Simla during the summer. Neville, meanwhile, is away fighting the Afghans. The idyll cannot last, for an army officer blows their cover when he arrives to summon Dr Singh to attend those wounded after a massacre near Rawalpindi.

Here Slaughter steps up the action, mingling historical events with the fate of the characters, though with some liberality over dates. Her Hindu- Muslim massacre sounds closer to the atrocities of Partition than the riots of 1920, and there are anachronisms in dialogue.

However, the novel is designed less for old India hands than for a market new to the Subcontinent. Slaughter's descriptions of India are vividly evocative - such as the slow progress of humanity along the Grand Trunk Road towards the mountains as heat strikes the plains, and the hotel for passing Europeans with its sherry and croquet lawns. In fact, the real love story is about India, rather than the not very credible affair of the two lovers.

Clare Colvin

The reviewers' novel 'The Mirror Makers' is published by Arrow

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