Love, espionage and war
A love story unspools in the background of a World War.
Muskoka Maharani, David McMahon, Penguin, Rs 275
Harry Barnsley suspects he's on the wrong side of a career in breaking news but suddenly a scoop comes his way. Tracking the tale, he goes off to Muskoka in Canada where he meets Serena Bracebridge-Rhode, an Anglo-Indian, the figure at the centre of what Harry thinks could well be the story of his entire career.
And Serena tells Harry her tale, moving them to Marsdengunj, your typical railway colony near Kolkata, back in the times of the Raj. David McMahon has the eye of a pointillist and the details are beautifully etched in; within a few paragraphs, it seems as if the reader is in Marsdengunj, a keen spectator to the little town's seething politics. Like a stone thrown in a still pond comes along Stamford Beaudeville with an agenda, to upgrade Marsdengunj to an important rail link. The Anglo-Indians who make up the colony view the Beaudevilles with much mistrust and open hostility. It doesn't help that Stamford and Erika are themselves locked in a loveless and tense marriage, struggling to find answers.
Serena, the pretty daughter of Charleston Bracebridge-Rhode, an engine driver with a weakness for the bottle, gets caught up in the maelstrom that breaks inexorably over the town and its inhabitants. The story then shifts to London where the Allies, after the Dunkirk evacuation, are re-thinking strategy. Serena is now a nurse in St. Stephen's Hospital and more interestingly, is recruited as a British spy. It's a one-off assignment and Serena does it to the best of her capability; the eventual cataclysmic results send shock reverberations all the way to the present-day Vatican.
McMahon is no Alistair Maclean; his is a gentle tale that isn't quite sure whether it's a love story, a war mystery or both. It moves at a brisk pace but towards the end, becomes an act of tying up loose ends. His opening device at the start of the story is more than a tad contrived but it works for all that. What doesn't quite work is the title… the Muskoka Maharani label hangs loose on the heroine without fitting well.
It is clear that subtlety is the writer's forte; by and large, that subtlety moves the richly-layered tale well. Where the writer really scores is in the wealth of detail that runs like a mother lode throughout the story. There is a paragraph about the movements of a man's hand that is simply masterly; there is someone who is watching the movements of the bony hand and suddenly, the hand's owner's (sinister) motives are clearly revealed, to both the observer and the reader. We read of dhobis at work on the riverbank; how the white man or woman pays a native without touching him; gobar pani and the making thereof; how to play tops; even a mouthwatering description of the sandwiches served at the Chevron Club for enlisted men in Kolkata… and how women guests rarely ordered the same because very wide mouths were called for to consume said sandwiches!
A word about the lovely sepia-toned cover picture: it is clearly of a log cabin in some Western (Canadian?) town overlooking a river. There's a gun that serves as a line under the title. The reader is a little hard-put to make the connect with the story.
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