“SHADOW OF THE MOON” (1957/1979) Book Review
I first became aware of British author, M.M. Kaye back in the early 1980s, when I read her famous 1978 bestseller, “THE FAR PAVILIONS”. Intrigued by the author’s portrayal of the British and Indian societies in 19th century, I read another one of her novels – namely “SHADOW OF THE MOON”.
First published in 1957, “SHADOW OF THE MOON” was re-released 22 years later to cash in on the success of “THE FAR PAVILIONS”. Like the latter, the novel was set in 19th century India. “SHADOW OF THE MOON” told the story of Winter de Ballesteros, the only daughter of an aristocratic Spaniard whose family lived in India and the beloved granddaughter of an English earl. Orphaned at the age of six, Winter is forced to leave India and live with her mother’s family in England for the next eleven years. Betrothed at an early age to Conway Barton, the nephew-in-law of her great-aunt and an official of the East India Company, serving as Commissioner of the Lunjore District, Winter finally leaves England to return to India in order to marry him. Barton’s military aide, Captain Alex Randall of the British East India Company (aka “John Company”), is assigned to act as escort for Winter’s return journey to the East.
Unfortunately for Winter, she encounters two misfortunes upon her arrival in India – the discovery that her new husband is a debauched and overweight drunk who had married her for her fortune; and that she has fallen in love with Alex Randall. She is unaware that Alex has also fallen in love with her. While Winter struggles with her love for Alex and her unhappy marriage, events slowly come to a boil that lead to the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion in which Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army rise against the British between May 1857 and June 1858. The violent outbreak of sepoy troops against the rule of the British East India Company forces both Winter and Alex to experience the violence that explodes throughout most of India and acknowledge their feelings for one another.
For a novel that is supposed to be about the famous Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58, most of it seemed to be set before the rebellion’s actual outbreak. The novel’s first six chapters focused upon Winter’s parents and her childhood in both India and England. The next thirty-four (34) chapters focused upon Winter and Alex’s journey to India, the introduction of Anglo society in India, Winter’s marriage to Conway Barton in Lunjore, the growing tensions between the British rulers and those who have much to resent them, Winter and Alex’s growing feelings for one another . . . well, you get the picture. By the time Winter, Alex and other British residents encounter the rebellion in Lunjore, Chapter 40 had arrived. Only Chapters 40 through 51 featured the actual rebellion.
Ironically, this does not bother me. I suspect that “SHADOW OF THE MOON” is basically a romantic drama with a historical backdrop. M.M. Kaye was born in India to a family that had served the British Raj for generations. She spent most of her childhood and early years of marriage in India, which made her a strong authority on the Anglo-Indian and Indian societies of the British Raj. “SHADOW OF THE MOON” is filled with strong historical facts about Great Britain during the first five decades in the 19th century, the East India Company, the Anglo-Indian and Indian cultures in the 1850s, and the politically charged atmosphere leading up to the Sepoy Rebellion and facts about the rebellion itself.
Reading the novel made it easy for me to see why M.M. Kaye had gained such fame as a historical novelist. Along with Alexandre Dumas, Susan Howatch, John Jakes, George MacDonald Fraser, James Michener, Ken Follet and Cecelia Holland, I consider her to be among the best historical novelists. Not only is “SHADOW OF THE MOON” filled with interesting facts about the British Raj in the 1850s, it is a well-written romantic drama about two people who managed to find love despite the obstacles of a loveless marriage and political turmoil. The two main characters – Winter and Alex – are well written characters that managed to avoid the usually clichés found in many inferior romantic paperback novels. Well . . . Winter and Alex’s characterizations managed to avoid most of the clichés. There are a few clichés about them that seem very familiar:
*Winter’s age spans between 17 and 19 in most of the novel. Most heroines of historical tend to be between the ages of 16 and 21.
*The age difference between Winter and Alex is 13 years – which is typical for the heroine and hero of most historical romances.
*The heroine, Winter, spends most of the novel stuck in an unhappy marriage with a much older man.
Despite these minor clichés, Winter and Alex turned out to be two very interesting and well-rounded characters. Surprisingly, I can say the same of the supporting characters, whether they be British or Indian. A few characters stood out for men – notably Alex’s cynical Indian orderly Niaz; a sharp-tongued British socialite named Louisa “Lou” Cottar; an intelligent and intensely political Indian nobleman who becomes a dangerous enemy of the British Raj by the name of Kishan Prisad; Lord Carylon, an arrogant and temperamental English aristocrat with a strong desire for Winter; and Conway Barton, the latter’s corrupt and narrow-minded husband, who lacks a talent for political administration.
Aside from a few clichés that are a part of Winter and Alex’s characterizations, I have a few other quibbles regarding the novel . . . or Kaye’s writing style. First of all, she had a tendency to describe a historical event or character in a slightly grandiose manner. One example featured the death of a famous military figure named John Nicholson. Kaye also had a bad habit of announcing an important sequence before it unveils . . . taking away any moment of surprise for the reader. This was apparent in the following passage:
“‘Two more days to go’, thought Alex that night, leaning against the wall and watching a quadrille danced at the Queen’s Birthday Ball.
But there were no more days. Only hours.”
In the following chapter, Winter, Alex and a host of other characters experience firsthand, the horror of the rebellion in Lunjore. I would have preferred if the beginning of the Lunjore rebellion had taken me by surprise.
Despite Kaye’s occasional forays into over-the-top prose, she created a sweeping and detailed novel filled with romance, adventure, historical accuracy and well-written characters. Although “THE FAR PAVILIONS” is considered her masterpiece, I must admit that “SHADOW OF THE MOON” remains my most favorite novel she has ever written.