The Sandalwood Tree
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". . . subtle lushness of the prose and message . . ."
Rocky and emotional journey through the partition of India and a family.
In 1947, Martin Mitchell was returned from the war a changed man, in utter control of his work and his emotions, drinking too much, smoking and distant from his wife Evie and their son Billy. Into this cease fire holding pattern, Martin is awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study the partition of India in the wake of the departing British Raj. Evie, unwilling to be left home, convinces Martin to take her and their son with him, hoping that distance and time will serve to mend their broken marriage and bring them together. Evie couldn’t have been more wrong.
There is an apt symmetry in pairing the partition of India in the wake of its independence with a crumbling marriage. Both are prone to war zones and bitter attacks and The Sandalwood Tree shares both. Elle Newmark outlines the basics and allows the characters to chart the course she follows doggedly to the end. However, there are some elements in this dissolution that are awkward and misplaced, like Adela’s diary entries and letters so early in the novel.
It is through Adela and Felicity’s letters, poetry and diary entries that Evie finds herself more and more distant from her husband while she keeps her secrets, mirroring the distance that grows between Felicity and Adela when Felicity falls in love and becomes involved with an Indian Sikh. Felicity, Adela and Evie and Martin keep secrets, from themselves and from each other, serving to widen the gulf between them. By including Adela’s diary entries before they are found, without segues into the body of Evie and Martin’s story and with explanation, is awkward at best. While the entries show the growing relationship between Felicity and Adela and how that relationship mirrors Evie and Martin’s do serve as a solid counterpoint, the entries would have been better used had they been more in keeping with their discovery.
The one constant in both stories is the lush and squalid Indian surroundings that baffle and comfort all the expatriates and highlight how easy it is for Felicity, who was born in India, and Martin, who adopts Indian dress and habits, to disappear into the alien landscape without thinking about how it affects those who love them. It is in this distance and total submersion Felicity and Martin find what they seek—release.
Newmark’s writing is deceptively simple while carrying a strong undercurrent of heartfelt emotion and truth that enlightens and informs. The Sandalwood Tree is engaging with its alien landscape and warring emotions and combines the best elements of the epistolary and modern novels. Whatever my qualms about the construction of Newmark’s novel, I was satisfied with the ending, which did not come easily or without growth, and the subtle lushness of the prose and message so clearly well written.
Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell