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Book description

This is a novel about prejudice—or perhaps more accurately—assumptions, preconceptions and misconceptions. It is also a story about growing up. The two themes are intertwined, for part of the growing-up process is having one’s preconceptions stripped away, sometimes painfully, leaving awareness that can feel to the young like a wound from which a scab is torn. Nearly all of the characters in this complex and moving story read each other incorrectly; slowly each person’s truth is revealed and the tale takes surprising and even tragic turns.The book’s first scene is at a Delhi mansion, an oasis of tree-shaded beauty on Shiraz Road. The head gardener is showing his new assistant how to sow flower seeds for the summer display. “What, more flowers!” Ravi’s expression had said. This Delhi garden was already full of them: turrets of roses, long beds of more roses all now in their second flush, borders of delphiniums and lupins, snapdragons, petunias, dianthus, stocks.English flowers. A paradise. Already there is a hint of something false--with English flowers in an Indian garden. And Ravi himself is a mystery. Why is he doing this work? “Beta--son,” says the head gardener Ganesh to Ravi, “You could do anything…You are educated” Ganesh says it almost as an accusation. “You are much educated.” There is news of unrest, riots, famine in the land, but the English ladies “still went to Connaught Place to buy cherry cake and canapés for their parties. And all seems peaceful on Shiraz Street; only appropriate as the house at 40 Shiraz Road has been let to a high U.N. diplomat, Sir Edward Gwithiam, whom “Ravi had only seen…as a small colorless man” but who seems to be a man of considerable power.Then one day in late January news filters from the house servants to the gardeners that soon there would be a mem. “A sort of mem,” says Ganesh in horror “for a mem could disrupt even a nation”—or even the United Nations—and worse there would also be “Two miss-babies…They will be noisy and ride their bicycles over our flower beds.”But the “miss-babies” are not babies at all. Una Gwithiam, the quiet one with brains is fifteen, studying at a prestigious girl’s school in Switzerland with hopes of Oxford in three years. Her beautiful and flirtatious half-sister, Hal (short for Halcyon) is twelve, a budding musician. Una and Hal have just been abruptly ordered to Delhi by their father even though their school term still has months to run. Una is quietly devastated; her dream of Oxford in tatters. She is only reconciled because of the special relationship she has always had with her father. But when Una hears that she and her sister are to study at home under a governess rather than attending school she confides her deepest worry to the headmistress, a sense that “There’s something in this not…straight.”Miss Lamont, the governess, the “sort of mem” will be the catalyst for much of the unfolding drama, but this is Una’s story and she is brilliantly drawn. I felt every pang of her disappointment and frustrated young ambition; every surge of anger, resentment, rebellion, jealousy. Una is wounded, but she is also capable of savage cruelty, snobbery and sly deceptiveness. Rumer Godden shows us all these flaws in Una’s character—and yet makes her utterly sympathetic. When a new and secret world unfolds for Una in the summerhouse at Number 40, I was with her all the way despite my adult fears for what might happen.The Peacock Spring is set in post-Independence India, sometime in the 1950s or early 1960s; the book is filled with lush descriptions, crisp dialog and a splendid ensemble cast of characters that made that place and time come alive; and there are also subtle—and sometimes devastating—insights into Indian and English class and racial distinctions. I thought this was just a slight notch down from The Greengage Summer. It was not quite as tightly plotted and sometimes edged towards melodrama, but still, a story to read, re-read and savor, and for those who enjoy tales of India this is a must.Content rating PG for some adult and adolescent sexual situations, mostly fade-to-black, also racial slurs.

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