I don’t know a great deal about India and it is always interesting to read a novel that gives you a gentle introduction to a place or a time in history that you know was influential. What is great about doing this through fiction is that you have the indulgence of a story and characters to guide you and so, you almost absorb the information through osmosis. Julia Gregson’s book is an example of this, providing this reader with a view of early post-colonial India through the experiences of Kit, a nurse sent to help at a home for midwives in Cochin.
Kit is young, fresh, a little naïve and newly wed to Anto, an Indian doctor who she met whilst staying with Daisy, a family friend and philanthropist. Daisy is trying to establish a home where Indian women can be trained in western midwifery practices to help ensure the safe delivery of babies; she earmarks Kit as a potential teacher and her eyes on the ground. Kit, however, lacks confidence and has not achieved her midwifery certificate, making her wary about the new role proposed for her in India.
Add to this, her white skin and her marriage to an Indian as well as her arrival in a new country with new (to her) customs, established traditions and very different views about roles for women especially when concerning nursing and midwives in particular, and Kit finds herself in an environment where she is viewed with suspicion and hostility. She also left her mother behind in England on bad terms, a relationship that had previously had its troubles but which became more pronounced when Kit married Anto and so, we follow Kit as she tries to come to terms with her new situation.
As well as cultural tensions outside the home to deal with, there are also the assumed ideals of her new family to navigate. Scandal must be avoided at all costs and in a bid to keep this at bay, there are secrets to be kept and people to be protected. However, this is not easy to do and Kit’s eagerness to be a nurse in the face of opposition from the community and her new family inevitably causes difficulties of great magnitude.
Gregson’s creation of conflicting characters and the role family plays in shaping us is particularly strong in this book, providing a good, easy read.