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28th June
2011
written by Steph

Faithful (and perhaps even casual) readers of this blogs know that I have certain fondness for books that revolve around the scholastic world. Half the charm for me in reading the Harry Potter books wasn’t just in entering a magical world, but in getting to go to school with Harry and the gang. The moment when the first book really spoke to me was Harry’s first trip to Diagon Alley and Hagrid takes him through buying school supplies. Heaven! Probably the only place more dangerous to let me loose unsupervised other than a bookstore would be a stationary/office supplies stores. I can’t say I personally miss all that much about my own highschool experience, but when Fall comes round and I have no reason to buy new pens and binders, well, I may just die a bit inside. One of my goals has also been to try to read more international fiction, so when I saw Miss Timmins’ School for Girls on the TLC Tours roster which boasted a murder mystery taking place in an Indian boarding school, you can imagine how excited I was. As it was pitched, Miss Timmins’ revolves around a young Indian woman named Charu, who takes a position at the British-nun-run Miss Timmins’ boarding school teaching English as a means of stretching her wings and gaining some independence from her family. Although Charu is slow to make friends, she eventually forms a magnetic bond with a fellow teacher, Moira Prince, and the two become thick as thieves. Unfortunately, one dark and stormy evening (the very best kind of nights for murder most foul!), Moira’s body is found broken at the base of a cliff and signs suggest her fall was no accident. As suspicion flits around the community, Charu is determined to discover who killed her friend and why, even if it means bringing unwanted attention and questions upon herself. The way the book is pitched, you really feel like this is going to be a novel crammed with action and secrets and tight pacing. The mystery feels like it is the central crux of the novel, so you can imagine my surprise and confusion to find that the murder does not occur until a third of the way through the novel (and this book is 500+ pages). Up until that point, there is just a lot of backstory about Charu and her family and the school and I was really wanting the pace to pick up. When the murder finally happens, I expected things would finally get rolling, but instead the focus of the novel shifts to a trio of young girls who attend the school and how things transpire after Moira’s death. The pace of the narrative was so odd that in the end it seemed like the murder mystery was added in as a hook to grab readers, but wasn’t really the author’s primary storytelling aim. Instead, it was quite evident that the book was more about the metamorphosis and self-discovery that Charu goes through when she is finally given the chance to be her own person outside the expectations of her parents. In many ways, we witness Charu undergo a second puberty as she experiences and experiments with all the things she neglected during her own teenage years. In that sense, the boarding school setting made perfect sense, as did the teen protagonists who gain prominence in the second act. One thing I definitely did not expect in this novel was the in-depth exploration that Nayana Currimbhov engages in with respect to Charu and her sexuality. I feel like if this were a Western novel (and no, I don’t mean with cowboys and ponies…), a naïve woman discover first love and exhibiting bisexual tendencies would hardly be shocking, but I thought it was interesting to look at the strictures that a woman in Indian would surely face, especially given that the novel is set in the ‘70s. That element of Charu’s journey was certainly a surprise, and perhaps one of my favorite dimensions to the novel. I also really liked watching Charu transform from an observer to an active participant in her own life and the way this symbolized by her attitude and reaction to a particular physical characteristic. Early in the novel we learn that Charu developed a rather unseemly “blot” on her face as a young girl and in many ways it has stunted her development, causing her to hide in the shadows and merely watch those around her. Later on, her blot becomes a source of power, and allows her to act as she wishes without respect to others’ censure. She is already marked as an outcast so she may do as she likes. It was an interesting means of looking at how the things that make us stand apart, the things of which we are ashamed, can be basis of strength and empowerment once we come to accept them. Charu not only comes to this place of peace with her deformity, but actually begins to rebel in being part of the fringe element. Overall, I wouldn’t say that this novel was disjointed so much as it felt ungainly; at times it really seemed like it was focusing on the wrong things at the wrong times and like the author was at war with herself about what story she wanted to tell. A coming of age story is fine, as is a murder mystery, but the two do not necessarily need to intersect, or perhaps, they need to be bridged more elegantly than they were here. I did appreciate the insight into Indian culture that Currimbhov provides into Indian culture, and the world that Charu lives in feels very vibrant and authentic. Also, the descriptions of the food were divine, and I frequently found my tummy grumbling as I read! I think overall I would have preferred the book more had it excised the murder mystery element altogether, as I really did feel like it was the weakest aspect of the book and promoted inaccurate expectations on my own end as a reader. I think I was ultimately more disappointed by this book than I was engaged or thrilled by it, but there were certainly things about this book that I liked a great deal. However, as a whole the book was not entirely successful, and seemed to be a textbook example of how sometimes less is more. Rating: 3 out of 5 For other reflections on this book, check out some of the other stops on this tour! Tuesday, June 21st: Dolce Bellezza Wednesday, June 22nd: The Lost Entwife Thursday, June 23rd: Bookworm’s Dinner Monday, June 27th: Raging Bibliomania Tuesday, June 28th: Steph and Tony Investigate Wednesday, June 29th: Book Journey Tuesday, July 5th: Life In Review Wednesday, July 6th: Reading Through Life Thursday, July 7th: Rundpinne Monday, July 11th: Alison’s Book Marks Tuesday, July 12th: The House of the Seven Tails Wednesday, July 13th: Unabridged Chick

13 Comments

  1. 06/28/2011

    I read reviews on this on two blogs (yours is the third)and I immediately went to the website of a bookshop in Chennai hoping it will be available. Out of stock. I am so disappointed. This sounds such a delightful “different” book that I have to track it down!

  2. 06/28/2011

    This sounds like the author just went off in too many directions. The different aspects of the book sound really good but somehow, as you point out, they don’t work together.

  3. 06/28/2011

    I found your insights on this book to be right on the mark. It was also confusing to me that the murder came about so late in the novel, and then it became the prime focus of the story in a weird and all encompassing way. I also liked the insight to Charu’s development and personality, and I think in a way I would have been more pleased with the book had it stayed focused on that angle instead of going through all the speculation and rumors of the murder. Though I really wanted to like this book, in the end I was only able to hold it at arms length and lament over it. It had so much potential, but in the end it was nothing like what I had expected it to be.

    Also, I totally appreciate your love of office supplies, and share the same enthusiasm! I have a huge drawer full of post-its, pens, pencils, and other assorted office supplies that I add to regularly. Not that I use them very much!

  4. 06/29/2011

    @ Mystica: From what I’ve read, this definitely seems to be a book that is not like most “Indian” novels, so if you’re looking for something different, definitely try this out!
     
    @ Kathleen: Yes, I think this was a really ambitious first novel, and so I think that at times the author was juggling more than she could really handle. If she had just stuck to one storyline, I think it would have been a stronger book.
     
    @ zibilee: It really does sound like we had the same reaction to this book. It certainly wasn’t bad, but it had quite a few weaknesses that were unfortunate and could have been avoided.
    And office supplies are the best! One of the things that I looked forward to when I was a TA was the excuse to go out and buy fancy-schmancy “marking” pens! 😉
     
    @ Stephanie: To me this really was a mixed bag. There were some really good interesting bits, but it had a lot of weak spots. Certainly an uneven novel at best and not one I’d be fully confident recommending…
     
    @ softdrink: Normally long books scare me, but even though his book definitely felt long, it felt long in a way that was separate from the page count, if that makes any sense. I do think it could easily have had 100 pages chopped, but I guess the writing was good enough that I didn’t feel like this was all that intimidating in terms of length… still, it definitely could have been tightened!

  5. 06/28/2011

    I have been kind of the fence about this one. It just sounds ok to me, and there are already so many other books battling for my attention.

  6. 06/28/2011

    zibilee’s mention of 512 pages scared me! I haven’t been much in the mood for long, rambly novels this year.

  7. 06/29/2011

    Nice review, Steph! This book looks interesting, but from your description it looks like the author didn’t know what she wanted to focus on. Maybe she was thinking of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ when she wrote about the murder, and then got distracted and changed track after that. But nice to know that you found some redeeming things in the book, though overall you were a bit disappointed with it.

  8. It’s too bad the book didn’t turn out to be what you expected, but it sounds like it wasn’t a bad read – that’s a good thing!

    Thank for being a part of the tour.

  9. 07/02/2011

    A very thoughtful review. I don’t think I’ve read a book set in an Indian boarding school so I’d like to give this one a try. Plus these days I like my mysteries to have more than just the mystery (I know, it’s weird).

  10. […] Tuesday, June 28th: Steph and Tony Investigate […]

  11. 07/06/2011

    Oh, it’s such a shame when a book is positioned in a misleading manner. I do think I would try it out some time as I usually love boarding school related stories (a hang over from Enid Blyton school stories, I guess)

  12. 07/10/2011

    @ Vishy: I still need to read The Secret History! I’ve heard such good things about it, and I even have a copy! Must read it soon!
     
    @ Heather J.: No, this definitely wasn’t a bad read, and I am not sorry I read it… just felt a bit disappointed by it! Thanks for havign me be part of this tour!
     
    @ sakura: Yes, the setting definitely seemed unique, and it was really interesting to see a British-ruled boarding school in the wake of India getting Independence. There were lots of good elements, I just wish they had been better incorporated!
     
    @ Nishita: Haven’t read any Enid Blyton, but I love boarding school stories too! I’m sure if I’d experienced them myself, I’d have no such fondness! 😉

  13. […] Tuesday, June 28th: Steph and Tony Investigate […]

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