Book Review: Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

Shadow of the Moon, set in India before and during the Sepoy rebellion of 1857, was one of those books that I'd been meaning to read but never got around to. So when I saw that Helen was joining Cirtnecce and Cleo in a Read Along, I decided to join them.

At the start of the Read Along, additional background on the Company Raj and an overview of how the mutiny spread was supplied by Cirtnecce, which gave me a better grasp of the situation in India at the time of the novel.

Shadow of the Moon was first published in 1957, but was not as popular as M.M. Kaye's other novel

of India, The Far Pavilions (1978), probably due to the severe editing where many of the action scenes were removed. However, in 1979 Shadow of the Moon was re-released as M.M. Kaye originally wrote it and this is the edition I have reviewed.

Six-year-old orphaned heiress, Winter de Ballesteros, born in India of English and Spanish parents, is sent to England to live with her great-great-grandfather, the Earl of Ware. She is accompanied by her Indian nurse, Zobeida, who keeps Winter's memories of the country of her birth alive by telling stories of her time spent at the Gulab Mahal, promising that one day they will return there and live happily ever after.

When eleven years old, Winter meets a distant relative, the ambitious Conway Barton who is on leave from his administrative post in India. He learns of Winter's wealth, and although considerably older than her, realises her fortune could be his if he is prepared to wait a few years. He inveigles his way into the unhappy and lonely Winter's affections by showering her with attention and kindness, and speaking to her of her homeland. Before Conway's return to India, the Earl, aware of the growing friendship between Winter and Conway, agrees to a betrothal contract that would see Conway marry Winter in the event of the Earl's death.

Six years later, when Winter is seventeen, the Earl, suffering from ill health and wishing to see her married before he dies, summons Conway to England. Conway, now the Commissioner of Lunjore, uses the excuse that he is far too busy to make the trip and decides to send his assistant, Captain Alex Randall, to escort Winter to India instead. Alex is appalled, for he knows the real reason behind Conway's decision, but reluctantly agrees seeing no good would come of earning his superior's enmity by refusing.

Unable to convince Winter's relatives that Conway is not the man they remember, he approaches Winter directly and tries to dissuade her from going to India, but she accuses him of being envious and disloyal to Conway. Although she resents Alex for his criticism of Conway, she is curious about the handsome officer too. Much of the tension between Winter and Alex, apart from their growing attraction to one another, is Winter's refusal to acknowledge that Conway may have changed.

From the outset I found Captain Alex Randall very likeable. He has all the attributes of a romantic hero: good looks, strength of character, resourcefulness, dedication to duty and sense of honour. He is one of the more popular East India Company officers, respected for his fair dealing by the inhabitants of Lunjore. He continually feels alienated from his fellow Englishmen and it is easy to see why, with most of them intent on having a good time and dismissive of Indian beliefs and traditions. I shared Alex's frustration with his arrogant and complacent superiors, who decided there was no substance to the rumours of a sepoy uprising despite evidence to the contrary. Yet, he perseveres. Alex is often conflicted: scornful of his superiors, he must respect their rank; English, he identifies himself more with the Hindus and then, there is Winter, the cause of his original dilemma!

Winter, I came to like more by the end of the novel, though initially I found her exasperating for some of the decisions she makes and her unshakeable loyalty to Conway. Marriage to him means a return to India, and the happiness she is sure awaits her there. No wonder she fiercely holds onto her childhood memories of him. Her very sheltered Victorian upbringing does not prepare her for India, nor does she fully understand Alex's warning because of it. Even Alex, much later in the novel, observes that the strictures of Victorian society inadequately prepares young ladies, such as Winter, for life.

There are so many other wonderful characters in this novel. The ruthless Lord Carlyon, who also pursues Winter; Kishan Prasad, a Hindu, who plays a pivotal role in Alex's life; Niaz, a Punjabi Mussulman and Alex's loyal companion; the kind Mrs. Abuthnot, who acts as Winter's chaperone on the trip to India, and Lou Cottar, who surprises everyone by taking responsibility for a child not her own, are just a few.

The sights, sounds and sensations of India are beautifully described by M.M. Kaye, making it very easy to fall under India's spell and share the experiences of her characters. Her evocative descriptions are not restricted to India. She is equally skillful when describing the numbing cold of an English winter as well as the horrific events of the uprising. I also liked the way she differentiated between English and the Indian vernacular, as in the conversations between Alex and Niaz, adding another layer of authenticity to the narrative.

Not since Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald has a novel of the Sepoy rebellion captured my imagination as did Shadow of the Moon. While the romance between Winter and Alex will appeal to many readers as it did to me, there is plenty of adventure and intrigue to satisfy other tastes. I found the political and social aspects of the novel just as rewarding as the romance. In other words, I loved this book and look forward to reading M.M. Kaye's other historical novels, The Far Pavilions and Trade Winds.

4 comments:

  1. Great review, Yvonne! I didn't know about the editing so that is an interesting tidbit of information.

    A question just occurred to me which I was meaning to ask and forgot: did you notice there were quite a few references to women and children in India, but more during unrest and/or war, and how their presence prevented men from functioning sensibly, as they would react under emotional pressure to save them and perhaps not make the best decisions overall for them or their country? It was very intriguing. I felt like Kaye was making a point based on some other experience but I didn't quite get what it was.

    In any case, a wonderful read! Let's do it again sometime! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think it was Alex that raised that issue when he tried to convince his superiors to send the women and children to safety. He said that men wouldn't take as many risks, or do what they had to do, if they had to also protect the women and children.

      It crops up again when Alex comes across Alice Batterslea's body after the magazine is blown up. Instead of riding to defend one of the roads into Oudh, he returns to the residency because of Winter, and hates himself for doing it. It's mentioned again before he leaves Winter, Lou and Lottie in the jungle to go blow up the bridge and again when he and Niaz blow up the bridge. He blames the women for his delay in getting there and what happens to Niaz.

      Perhaps that is why Kaye mentions it because Alex does exactly that, puts Winter and the other women first before his duty. However, I found it interesting that Alex couldn't leave Niaz alone at the bridge, not even for Winter.

      Imagine if the four of us were in the same room together. What a lively discussion we would have about this book.

      Totally agree, it was a wonderful read and I would love to join you in another Read Along!

      Delete
  2. It sounds as though you loved this book as much as I did, Yvonne - it's wonderful, isn't it? I also thought Alex was a great character and shared his frustration when his superiors refused to listen to his warnings (though I suppose the reader has the advantage of knowing what was going to happen and that he had good reason to be concerned). The Far Pavilions is even better, in my opinion, so I'm sure you'll enjoy that one too. I haven't read Trade Winds yet but it's now on my TBR!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did, Helen, I really loved it and Alex, too! If you hadn't written a post about the Read Along, this wonderful book would still be on my TBR, so thank you for that. I have a copy of The Far Pavilions, so will hopefully get to it very soon.

      Delete