Madras, 1910: Posey Swift and Tilly Sweetrick are caught up in a scandal that will change their lives forever. Singing and dancing across a hundred stages as members of 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?
Is anyone else drooling over this cover? Because it is gorgeous. Even though I have an ARC, kindly provided by Templar, I’m very tempted to buy the published book simply so I can have that cover on my bookshelf! If anyone’s looking for something a bit different in historical YA, or simply YA in general, I would urge you to pick up India Dark. I’m a big fan of historical fiction and even more so when it’s inspired or based on real characters or a real event, and particularly if it’s one based on events that aren’t as well known.
India Dark is kind of like a mixture of everything I enjoy reading, a book for both younger and older readers, engaging but flawed characters, some insight into different cultures, a theatrical background, historical setting and a glimpse into a very different way of life. The story is based on a real theatre troupe from the 1880′s, Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, which closed in 1910 when the children walked out and refused to tour with their manager any more.
It’s a surprisingly dark tale that touches on child abuse, bullying, lies and possible sexual assault. Since we see a lot of this through the eyes of Posey, a naive, young girl, new to the theatre troupe, nothing is explicit. Indeed, Posey doesn’t quite understand or catch many of the things going on around her, but it is certainly there, a quietly sinister undertone that builds throughout the book.
One of the things I liked most about India Dark was how the that events are told through the eyes of two very different narrators. Posey sees everything through rose tinted glasses and is desperate for everyone to be one big happy family. Tilly is older, almost cynical and at times quite selfish. She becomes determined to get escape the troupe and punish Arthur Percival, who she blames (rightly or wrongly), for ruined her chances of touring America. Each girl views the same events in strikingly different ways. What was especially interesting was how they saw each other. Tilly sees Posey not as a sweet, kind hearted girl, but as someone who is well aware of her innocent apparel and who can actually be quite manipulative and sly. Both are unreliable narrators. As is the case of the original Lilliputians, we’re never certain who is telling the truth and who has exaggerating or twisted events to suit their own purpose. I actually preferred Tilly as the novel progressed, but I did feel for Posey. Loss of innocence is an important theme that Murray explores in India Dark and Posey is just one of several Lilliputian’s who are forced to grow up far too quickly.
There are many characters in India Dark but almost all of them felt like real people, as if their own stories were taking place just out of sight, of the page, and several have their own story arc weaving in and out of the main plot. I was fascinated when I discovered that each character was inspired by, or based on, a real member of Pollard’s Opera Company. If any character stole my heart it was Charlie. One of the younger boys mostly keeps to himself and stays out of the many petty squabbles, dramas and upsets that break out among the Lilliputians – particularly among the girls. He wants to be a magician, and unlike the others, takes advantage of the troupe being diverted through India to make new friends, learn their customs and chase his own dreams. His friendship and tentative relationship with Posey is touching and formed some of my very favourite scenes of the novel.
I felt Murray captured the atmosphere of the time and the setting extremely well. I loved the brief glimpses into the British Empire, the children’s (and their guardian’s) understanding and attitude towards Eastern people and Eastern cultures and vice-versa. The lack of opportunities for children from poor families in the early 19th century, the constraints and treatment of young women of the time, the sexualisation of the Lilliputians in theatre troupes, the outbreak of cholera and the growing appreciation and following for magicians and spiritualism throughout that period. These were only brushed upon, but it was these little details that really made India Dark for me.
India Dark does loose momentum at times. I actually found the climax of the story, when the children walk out on the theatre troupe and the following chapters as they await the trial, was the least interesting part of the whole book. The epilogue gives us a sad, bittersweet glance into the Lilliputian’s lives as adults, the friendships that have survived over the years, and the ones that haven’t. There is also a Victorian styled program at the beginning of the book which is very helpful for keeping track of all the secondary characters and their various ages. All I want now is a companion book with the collection of photographs and documents that Murray used to bring India Dark to life…
Many thanks to Templar for sending an ARC for review.