The Wonder House, by Justine Hardy

Generations and ideologies clash on troubled Indian waters

Only as the reader gets into both the story and the texture of her complex novel does it become clear that these words matter. The lake is Nagin, beside Srinagar in Kashmir, where the novel is set. The bark is that of a marked cedar tree. Between the time of the prologue, in 1975, and the action of the novel, in 1999, the tree's timbers have become part of a houseboat named, in reference to Kipling's Kim, the Wonder House.

Much of the story unfolds on and around this boat, in its poetic lakeside mooring. Having learnt that the cedar was marked, which happened whenever a tree was associated with violent death, we have to wait until the end to find out why.

The Wonder House is the home of Gracie Singh, a tap-dancing Yorkshire lass who married an Indian prince, and is now an elderly widow, forthright, drunk and dependent on the services of Suriya and her beautiful daughter, Lila. The Abdullah family, to whom Suriya, Lila and several other characters belong, lives only a meadow away.

For all its idyllic surroundings, the Wonder House is not immune from the outside world. Srinagar has become a place of extremes and danger. Gracie, no friend to what she describes as "mawkish mullah stuff", regards her boat as "secular, a tiny pocket of success for Pandit Nehru".

Shortly before Hal, a young journalist from England, arrives to research life in Kashmir, the 17-year-old Irfan Abdullah runs away to join Islamic militants. By doing so he exposes his whole family to risk. Gracie is among Hal's contacts; by insisting that he stays on the houseboat, she ensures that he and Lila are in close proximity.

As the novel's strands interweave, it becomes clearer that things will end badly, although the nature of the tragedy still comes as a shock. This is thanks to the quiet sophistication of Hardy's writing, at its best in creating strong sensual impressions: the winter cold, the changing light, the blood fanning out on the kitchen floor. Her touch is less sure with the main characters. Gracie and Masood come over well but Hal is weak, his journalistic mission and role unconvincing. But these criticisms weigh lightly compared with the pleasure and absorption that this impressive first novel offers.

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