Monday, October 10, 2011

India Dark by Kirsty Murray

First published by Allen & Unwin in 2010

India Dark is the story of two girls, Poesy and Tilly, who join a children’s touring theatre company, the Lilliputians, in the early 1900s, and set off on what they think will be show after show of glitz and glamour and adulation. But as the season progresses and the much-promised dream of touring in America becomes just that – a dream – the children are stuck in India. They struggle under poor working conditions and the temper of their Manager Mr Arthur, whose sharp tongue and even quicker hands have earned him the nickname ‘the Butcher’. As Tilly leads the rebellion against the Butcher, Poesy is caught, partly by her own making, in a web of confusion and deceit, where not even all the colour of India and thrall of the stage can get her out of her predicament.

Murray did a great deal of research in writing India Dark, and from what I’ve read, became quite invested in it. This allows me a greater appreciation of the book. I think she has done a fantastic job of taking a small but fascinating part of Australian history and turning it into a novel which is vivid, well-written and complex, plus a rollicking good adventure to boot. I would highly reccommend India Dark for school libraries. It has all the important stuff while remaining a compelling, at times fun, story. There is lots to discuss. There is even more to enjoy. Great stuff.

The journey from suburban Melbourne to the heart of India is filled with colour and life and heat. Murray does a wonderful job of showing us how the intensity of that journey takes its toll not only on eveyone’s emotions, but also the show itself, and it is quite fascinating to watch the Lilliputians fall apart. I also liked Murray’s writing because although there is lots of description and imagery and generally just good writing, it doesn’t get in the way – it suits the tone of the book and moves everything along.

Poesy and Tilly are certainly two very interestig little girls. I began by being more inclined towards Poesy but in the end Tilly won me over. I think the thing with Poesy was that although she was meant to be either totally naive or a bit unreliable – as Tilly herself noted, Poesy never knew what side she was on, she jumped from this to avoid conflict and confrontation – in the end I was still not really sure of her as a character. Did she mean to do everything she did and cause all that trouble, or was she just that totally clueless? I don’t know, because Poesy never seemed to know herself. I find that frustrating. I can handle an unreliable narrator, but I also want to be sure of them as a character.

I did like the switching viewpoints between Tilly and Poesy, though. And some interesting stuff to discover about the other Lilliputians. Also, I think Murray did a wonderful job of allowing us just the briefest of insights into the struggles and hardships Mr Arthur faced in trying to make the Lilliputians a success. Although it might not completely excuse him, it’s just enough to allow us to appreciate where he’s coming from.

In many ways this is a book about loss of childhood, loss of innocence and the terribly scary act of figuring out how to navigate the murky waters between being a child and being an adult. I found the sub-plot with Poesy and Charlie incredibly touching. Their last ‘big moment’ together and the resulting aftermath was so true-to-life that it hurt. A bittersweet ending for a lovely little book. Could have done without the epilogue though.

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