India Dark by Kirsty Murray
Allen & Unwin, 2010
YA historical (fiction but based on a true story)
Madras 1910: Poesy and Tilly are caught up in a scandal that will change their lives forever. Singing and dancing across a hundred stages as a troupe of Australian child performers, they travel by steam train into the heart of India. But as one disaster follows another, money runs short and tempers fray.
What must the girls do to protect themselves, and how many lives will be ruined if they try to break free? India Dark is a story of things kept secret, of conflicting wills and desires, set against the heat and dust of a lost Empire.
I cannot quite decide if I liked India Dark or not, but I was certainly engrossed in it from very nearly the very first page. The story is told split perspective between our two heroines, Poesy and Tilly. It is immediately apparent that there is a strong disconnect between how they see themselves, and how they see each other, so while you’re told a lot about them in the early part of the book, it is hard to know who they really are beneath the words. Adding to the confusion, both girls explain/validate their perspectives with references to the events of the book – the things that they’ve lived through, but we haven’t read yet. In a nutshell, Poesy appears in her own chapters as a little timid, but mostly naïve, in Tilly’s as calculating and impossible to trust. Tilly sees herself as capable and intelligent, Poesy sees her as confident but also pig-headed and destructive. This theme of appearance versus reality, the way that we choose to present ourselves versus who we really are, is enormously important, recurring again and again as the story progresses.
Beginning with panic and fear at an Indian Court House, India Dark shifts gears and slows, jumping back about a year, back to Australia, to the auditions for the new tour and Poesy’s joining the Lilliputian Opera Company, back to where it all began, but the setting soon expands as the tour begins and the children set off, heading for Borneo, Singapore, India – their steamboat slowly making its way into the temperature and damp of the tropics. Murray herself lived in India for a time while she was researching the book, and while the girls don’t describe in detail the places that they go to, the setting is always a strong background presence, and there’s a familiarity to the way that Murray writes the sticky heat of Singapore, the dry heat and colour of India. She does a good job of capturing both place and time – India in the age of the British Empire, where etiquette was that white women should wear long ruffled skirts and sleeves, and men wore full suits, despite the heat.
There is a large cast of characters – for the first part of the book I was frequently checking back to the “Cast and Crew” list at the front to help me keep names straight – and not all of them are particularly well developed, but the over the course of the story the main ones are, and they’re given complexities and shades of grey that make them feel very real. The children’s ever-shifting friendships, rivalries, dramas and power-plays are magnified in the tight fishbowl-bubble-world of the Company, and Murray affords them tremendous respect, exploring the impact of each small indignity right alongside the large ones.
But most of all, while reading this, I was struck by the sense of foreboding present – after all, we already know from the synopsis and opening chapters (and occasional retrospective remarks – “Looking back, I can see…” etc) that everything is somehow, somewhen, going to go horribly wrong – but Murray builds slowly, reveals gradually, as Mr Arthur Percival’s grip on the Company begins to slip and long-kept secrets begin to spill out. Much like a river, India Dark is a sometimes uncomfortable, fascinating story that flows inexorably on. Definitely worth a look.