Book review: Before the Rains by Dinah Jefferies
Dinah Jefferies' early years in British-controlled Malaya has been the inspiration behind a raft of rich and thrilling historical novels set amidst the heat and turmoil of faraway countries in the throes of major change.
After forays in Malaya, Ceylon and Vietnam, Jefferies sweeps us away to India in 1930, a place of blistering heat, incredible colour, centuries-old tradition and deeply entrenched prejudice on both sides of the political spectrum.
A sumptuous, sultry saga of love against the odds, Before the Rains brings to glorious – and sometimes cruel – life a nation on the cusp of change, a country where British rule is under increasing pressure and the threat of rebellion grows with each passing day.
And the heat is on for two seemingly star-crossed lovers… one a young Englishwoman escaping her past and the other an Indian prince struggling under the weight of custom and expectation. As the tension rises and the monsoon approaches, they must make decisions that will change their lives forever.
When 29-year-old widow Eliza Fraser wins a government commission to photograph the royal family of Juraipore in Rajputana, a princely state in the desert region of Britain’s Indian Empire, it seems like ‘a second birth.’
Eighteen years earlier Eliza left India in a hurry with her mother after a tragedy that took her beloved father’s life but in England she has always had a feeling of ‘not belonging.’ Now her mother drinks too much and since her own husband’s sudden death, Eliza’s only companion has been her camera.
This land of sand, seamless blue sky and merciless heat offers the chance to make a name for herself as a photojournalist. But when Eliza arrives at the palace she meets Prince Jayant (Jay) Singh Rathore, the Maharajah’s handsome, brooding brother and feels an instant ‘soul connection’ to him. As their friendship grows into love, Eliza awakens Jay to the terrible poverty of his people and he shows her the injustices of British rule.
Soon Jay and Eliza find they have more in common than they think… including a desire to help lift the Indian people out of the daily misery that blights their lives. But there are enemies at the palace determined to thwart their plans and to destroy their love.
Eventually Jay and Eliza will both have to make a choice between doing what is expected… or following their hearts.
In a story brimming with atmosphere, emotion, action, secrets, suspense and romance, the winner is again Jefferies’ graphic evocation of the landscape… a mesmerising riot of colour, sights, sounds, smells and suffocating heat.
As the simmering affair between Jay and Eliza plays out against the build-up to the monsoon season, we enjoy tantalising glimpses of the zenanas, the mysterious women’s quarters where gossip, scheming and eroticism form the beating heart of the palace, we visit medieval cities with impregnable forts and travel through deserts where winds lift burning sand and thicken the heavy air.
It’s an exciting but dangerous world where East meets West, where cultures clash and old practices can be cruel, where spies are active on both sides of the divide and where there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to mixed marriages.
Before the Rains is a sizzling, eye-opening page-turner and confirms Jefferies’s reputation as both a master storyteller and an acute observer of 20th century colonial history.
(Viking, hardback, £12.99)