I’m really delighted today to be joining the blog tour for the new book from Abi Oliver, Letter from a Tea Garden, and sharing my review. Independently published on 14th July, it’s now available for kindle, in paperback, and in hardcover (and I might just be treating myself to that one…). My thanks to everyone at Literally PR for the invitation and support, and for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley).
“A sweeping story of tenderness, loss and healing…” – now that looks like one I’m going to enjoy, doesn’t it?! I really loved Abi Oliver’s first book, A New Map of Love – she joined me here on Being Anne with a guest post to celebrate its release in April 2017. I’m sorry I don’t have a review of that one to share – I read it with my book club (we ALL loved it…) and I’ve just never got round to writing one – but I’m still hoping we might one day see a TV dramatisation with Martin Clunes as George. Just two books now from Abi Oliver – but it’s not really a big secret that she’s written many, many more as her alter ego of Annie Murray. I must especially mention Mother and Child, published by Pan Macmillan in September 2019, with all proceeds going to the Bhopal Medical Appeal – it was a quite wonderful read (contemporary, with echoes from the past – not the saga I’d rather expected), and one I’d really urge other readers to seek out (you’ll find my review here).
But enough – let’s take a closer look at Abi’s latest…
1965, an English country mansion.
Eleanora Byngh is not in a good state. Wedded to the whisky bottle and with her house crumbling round her ears, her days seem destined to follow a lonely (and grumpy) downhill path.
When the post brings an unexpected invitation to return to the Indian tea gardens of her childhood, Eleanora risks breaking open painful memories of her younger years, lived across a tumultuous century.
As relationships with her new-found family face their own challenges, she is offered fresh truths, the chance of love and unexpected new life – if she is prepared to take them.
Well, I was right – I’d rather thought this might be a book I’d enjoy, and I must say I thought it was absolutely stunning. It begins in 1964 – Eleanora, after a very full life, is sharing her home in England with friend and former nanny Persi, the house neglected and falling apart, drowning her life’s sorrows in whisky. An invitation to visit arrives from her nephew Roderick, her brother Hughie’s son, an assistant manager at a tea garden in Assam, accepted by both women – and they take the journey to the country where they both spent the larger part of their lives, understandably fearful of the memories it holds and the long-held secrets that might be revealed. And there follows – in tandem with the present day story – the most enthralling journey through Eleanora’s past life together with an exploration of a tumultuous period of India’s recent history.
In 1904, at the height of the Raj, Eleanora’s father was also an assistant manager at a tea garden – the idyllic childhood the children experienced despite the cracks in their parents’ marriage interrupted by their dispatch to the alien environment of an English boarding school, an experience only made bearable by the support of Persi. And later in Eleanora’s life – back in India, making her own way in life along with many mistakes and sometimes unwise choices, she has many more reasons to be grateful for Persi’s friendship and support. Meanwhile, the India of her childhood is no more – the Second World War has a devastating impact, followed by the end of the Raj, the absence of law and order followed by the fallout from Partition and the violence that followed. You don’t need to know anything about Indian history to enjoy this book – it’s very much an individual’s story, but the way the author weaves it into the story will leave an indelible impression.
Eleanora herself is a quite wonderful character – in both past and present, hers is the voice of the story, quite wonderfully sustained. I can hardly believe that, at the book’s start, I actually found her difficult to like – but by the book’s end, having seen her live her life and go through so much, she had a very special place in my heart. She’s funny and feisty, doesn’t care what people think, often causes great offence, lacks the social niceties at times – but my goodness, there were so many times I cried for her and wanted to hug her, to do anything I could possibly have done to lessen the difficulties she lived through. Throughout the book, she faces up to the past while recalling her memories, and ends up in an entirely different place – and taking that journey with her was an experience I’ll never forget.
And the India captured in this book is so much more than a backdrop to her story – the author brings it to life in all its vibrancy and colour, a wonderful multi-sensory experience, while making you feel at your core that ever present divide between privilege and destitution. This is one of those wonderful books that transports you, that you become part of as you read – and return to your own very different world at its end feeling you’ve lived through it all, and with a profound sense of loss. But the author really does have the most perfect emotional touch – when it’s all over, you leave the story with a smile and a real sense of hope for the future. It really is exceptional writing – a very personal story with all its unexpected twists and turns played out against a far wider canvas.
I’ve deliberately chosen not to tell too much of the story – I approached the book with only the synopsis on its back cover, and it’s only fair to allow others to do the same. But I thought this book – Eleanora’s story, Persi’s story, the way they were told, the people who cross their paths along the way, the powerful emotional impact of it all – was absolutely exceptional. Totally unforgettable, and without question one of my books of the year.
About the author
Abi Oliver (pseudonym of Annie Murray, bestselling novelist) has spent much of her life in the Thames Valley. At boarding school, Abi met a teacher who became a friend and mentor for 30 years, who had been a nun in Bangladesh, prompting a visit to Barishal in 1980, and sparking a life-long interest in South Asia.
She studied at Oxford and London Universities, has worked for a charity, on Indian Railways, as a nurse and as a writer. In 1991, she won the SHE/This Morning (Richard and Judy) short story competition, securing a literary agent and her first novel was accepted in 1993. She has since written 30 novels, raised four children and lives in Dorchester-on-Thames.