I was absolutely blown away by Shona Patel’s debut novel, Teatime for the Firefly, when I read it a few years ago and haven’t been able to forget her intelligent and independent heroine, Layla Roy, or Layla’s determination to chart her own life in an Indian culture based on strict traditions and expectations. The author’s use of language and imagery completely transported me to the beautiful yet savage environment of the Assam tea plantations and brought a world to life that I had never seen before. At the beginning of that novel we meet Layla’s kind and free-thinking grandfather, a man that raised Layla to be just as educated and self-possessed as any man. At a time when this way of thinking is nearly unheard of, Biren Roy has become a well-respected man known for his unwavering support of equality for the women of India, especially involving education. But how did he become this man? Flame Tree Road is Biren’s story of love, heartache and a passion born from tragedy that is just as beautiful as its predecessor.
Flame Tree Road begins in a small village in 1870s India with Biren’s family living a relatively poor yet loving and happy life. His parents have never been supporters of the country’s traditions that support cruel treatment and inequality towards women and Biren grows up dreaming of a different world. When his father dies and his mother is ostracized from everyone, including her family, and stripped from her position in society and her very humanity simply because she is a widow, smart and sensitive Biren knows his purpose in life must be to change these antiquated customs and ensure that the women of India can have a life of their own and the education they deserve regardless of their caste, their money or their marriage status.
The bulk of the novel deals with Biren’s journey to have his dream of equality and education for women realized. This takes him to England, where he becomes a lawyer and seeks to make changes within the British government that now rules over India, then back to India where he works to make sure those changes can become a reality. I hate to say it but I found Biren’s journey slow moving and, at times, tiresome. As would be expected, there are a lot of political and societal issues and delays that make this passion of Biren’s difficult to bring to fruition. While this helps highlight for the reader the odd traditions and superstitions of old-world India (to our modern eyes at least), after a while I became as frustrated as Biren clearly was at the obstacles that kept getting in his way. The relationships he develops along the way take a backseat to this journey and felt somewhat lackluster until he falls in love with Maya, the independent daughter of an Indian educator Biren works with to build a school for Indian girls, and by the time that beautiful relationship comes to be it isn’t given enough time to really flourish. Once Biren and Maya marry the story progresses at a rapid pace, covering many years in a short amount of pages, and, for me, wraps up too quickly. On top of that, I was saddened to see Biren’s life marked largely by tragedy as he lost so many of those he loved along the way. I get the idea that for a person to appreciate the sweet they must experience the sour, but it seemed like kind Biren got the short end of the stick there.
All of this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy Flame Tree Road. Shona Patel’s writing is amongst the most beautiful I have come across and her abilities to bring to life a brightly colored world of beauty against the ugliness of this time and place in history (at least when it comes to the rights of women and an antiquated caste system) is unmatched in my reading. She perfectly shows how this free-thinking man becomes stuck between two worlds – the old world beliefs of India and the advancements and changes of England – and I very much enjoyed seeing how Biren reconciled these two parts of his life together. He is a remarkable character and I feel quite satisfied that Ms. Patel gave fans of Teatime for the Firefly the history of one of the most enigmatic characters from that novel.
At the end of the day I think Flame Tree Road is a very solid novel that just fell slightly short of my very high expectations given how much I loved its predecessor. Regardless, I am still a huge fan of Shona Patel and will continue to read whatever she writes. Given her remarkably beautiful writing, I don’t think anyone could go wrong in picking up her novels.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, and their dogs Oliver and Cleopatra. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship. You can find more of her reviews on her blog.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by MIRA. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.