Anila’s Indian mother is dead. Her Irish father is inexplicably missing. When her guardian, Miss Hickey, relocates to Madras, Anila is alone. She finds employment with Edward Walker, whose intention is to travel up the River Ganges in search of a new, unnamed species of bird life. Anila’s task is to paint impressions for Mr. Walker to take back to the Royal Society in London.
Their ornithological quest is not without jeopardy, however. While on the river they discover an outlaw salt depot set up to avoid the heavy taxes being imposed by the East India Company, rescue a boy who has been punished and left to die by his master, and visit the village Anila’s mother had left, long ago, and in shame. Through Carlen, Mr. Walker’s assistant, Anila first hears news of her father. But she cannot decide whether Carlen is friend or foe.
The novel is told in a whimsical first person voice that shifts between past and present. From Anila’s youthful perspective we glimpse the darkness of her mother’s sexual exploitation and the despair that crushed her soul. Yet the novel is never without hope. Supporting characters are drawn with a delicate blend of good and evil that makes them fully human. From the outset we are drawn into their lush sub-continental world of 18th-century Bengal.
Anila’s Journey has a bardic quality that speaks of the author’s Irish origins and a fascination with India that is both detailed and compelling. The outcome is a story that reaches beyond time, culture and place to become a novel about humanity in a wondrous but imperfect world.