In this touching and lithely written debut novel, the gaps separating the generations are wide, but their shared roots in the British Raj and desire for understanding pull them back together. The form it takes is unusual for a family saga – three separate narratives, related in alternating chapters – and this works to heighten immediacy.
The opening scene hits with tremendous impact. In Peshawar, India, in 1907, 12-year-old Lila Langdon secretly observes her mother’s unveiling of an exquisitely embroidered tablecloth at a large gathering for her father Henry’s 50th birthday. The night ends in tragedy; Lila is shipped to her great-aunt Mina’s house on the Sussex Downs, where she grows up in self-enforced silence, alienated from the lively voices and comforting smells of her Indian homeland. She forms a connection with her neighbor’s schoolmate, a Sikh boy named Jagjit, although they’re discouraged from growing too close.
Her voice interweaves with that of Henry, writing in his diary as a motherless boy growing up in Bengal under his distant father’s care, and of Cecily, her grandmother, who neither she nor Henry knew. In letters to her twin sister, Mina, Cecily describes her excitement and uncertainty about traveling to India in 1855 to wed an older man, Major Arthur Langdon. Her later notes reveal her discomfort with marriage and the increasing danger she and Arthur find themselves in, as anti-British sentiment rises.
The legacy of long-hidden mysteries lingers throughout: did Cecily die in childbirth, as Henry grows up believing? What devastating image did the tablecloth depict? The answers are skillfully revealed in time, yet this is much more than a tale of family secrets. Belonging illustrates the complexity of Anglo-Indian relationships in colonial India and England, Indian soldiers’ valiant WWI service, and the pain of dislocation and unattainable love. Reading it is a deeply felt, mesmerizing experience.