Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons

Written by Jocelyn Cullity
Review by India Edghill

Lucknow, India, 1857: Before it was annexed by the British East India Company, the Indian princely state of Awadh was an almost fairy-tale land of princes, poets, and priests, of queens and courtesans—and of a royal guard composed of women. One of the members of this Rose Platoon is Amah, whose ancestors were brought from Africa as slaves. Amah is deeply devoted to Awadh and to Begam Hazrat Mahal, one of the royal women who try to keep Lucknow from disaster during the year of the “Indian Mutiny.” But civility and poetry are no match for cannon and bigotry, and it’s not a spoiler to say that Amah and the Begum are on the losing side of the violent struggle that devastates Lucknow.

It’s fascinating to see the Lucknow siege from the Indian, rather than the English, point of view, and the novel is beautifully written. But despite the lovely, evocative sentences, the story seems oddly shallow. (It’s written in present tense, which can have the effect of distancing the action from the reader; in this case I also felt I never really knew any of the characters.) And I’d hoped to learn about the Afro-Indian population, but although that’s the big selling point for the novel, there really isn’t any information about that group’s history; the fact that Amah and the Begum are Afro-Indian seems to be a literary accessory rather than anything substantial or even necessary to the plot.

And most unfortunately, on page 15 is the following sentence: “Statues of gods I had not met conversed with statues of our Allah.” (This isn’t an ARC, it’s the actual published book.) After that sentence, I was so deeply suspicious of the novel’s accuracy on any topic that it made for a disconcerting read, despite the elegant writing.