Book Review: Teatime for the Firefly

Teatime for the FireflyTeatime for the Firefly is a debut novel from Shona Patel that was published last year. It piqued my interest because it is set in 1940’s Assam and described as historical fiction. The author stresses that while the book contains actual historical facts and references to real places that it is purely a work of fiction.

Layla, the main character, witnessed her mother’s suicide as a young child and describes herself as “astrologically doomed and fated never to marry”. She lives with her grandfather, who is a retired district judge and is brought up with a liberal education. The first half of the book is set in a traditional Indian village where Layla contends with the local traditions and expectations. The second half of the book is based on her life after she moves to the Assamese tea gardens. In this setting, traditional Indian customs are replaced with the unique rules and customs of the tea-plantations. Throughout the book we get glimpses of Indian life after the Second World War, the effect of British colonialism and Hindu-Muslim tension. It’s a fascinating read but it is also an enjoyable novel. The author credits a number of other books and websites for the vivid backdrops that she created in this book. These have been added to my reading-list and I hope they are as enjoyable as “Teatime for the Firefly”.

Here is the book’s official description:

Layla Roy has defied the fates.

Despite being born under an inauspicious horoscope, she is raised to be educated and independent by her eccentric grandfather, Dadamoshai. And, by cleverly manipulating the hand fortune has dealt her, she has even found love with Manik Deb—a man betrothed to another. All were minor miracles in India that spring of 1943, when young women’s lives were predetermined—if not by the stars, then by centuries of family tradition and social order.

Layla’s life as a newly married woman takes her away from home and into the jungles of Assam, where the world’s finest tea thrives on plantations run by native labor and British efficiency. Fascinated by this culture of whiskey-soaked expats who seem fazed by neither earthquakes nor man-eating leopards, she struggles to find her place among the prickly English wives with whom she is expected to socialize, and the peculiar servants she now finds under her charge.

But navigating the tea-garden set will hardly be her biggest challenge. Layla’s remote home is not safe from the powerful changes sweeping India on the heels of the Second World War. Their colonial society is at a tipping point, and Layla and Manik find themselves caught in a perilous racial divide that threatens their very lives.

Article by Breda Desplat (www.pouringtea.com) @BredaDesplat

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