The Strangler Vine: A Novel. M. J. Carter. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. March 2015. 384 pp. ISBN#: 9780399171673.
India in 1837 is a very frightening place. William Avery is an intelligent person but uses his brains to gamble and drink too much. The result? He’s seriously in debt and in no position to turn down any command he is ordered to obey in his position as a soldier working for the East India Company. The natives are dependent on the British for jobs but it is very clear they are not bonding very well. Avery’s possessions are gradually being stolen and his friend Frank who seems so calm, collected and focused is about to experience a disaster. Avery cannot believe what he hears about Frank later on because Frank seemed so perfect.
The writings of Xavier Mountstuart on India had so entranced Avery that he decided to serve in India but the writings and the reality don’t quite match. Now Mountstuart seems to have gone “native,” meaning he’s living like an Indian and causing trouble wherever he appears. It’s Avery’s job to serve Jeremiah Blake, who is a secret political agent supposedly retired, in their quest to find Mountstuart. India is described on this journey in all of its ugliness and enchanting beauty. The weather is described as fairly intolerable as it’s excruciatingly hot and rainy since it’s the monsoon season. I couldn’t help thinking I was reading descriptions that vie Joseph Conrad’s writing – that dark, mysterious atmosphere that seems to pass from dangerous, life-threatening trails to momentary periods of relative safety but in which one cannot relax for fear of the unknown suddenly appearing to end life.
The characters are mysterious as well. Jeremiah has gone native in more ways than one as he knows the terrain through which they travel and after some definitely antagonistic skirmishes with Avery he actually comes to like Avery. For Avery is really not stupid but more like a bumbling fool, who seems to get into every possible danger on the trip up north. Avery finally learns to let go of his “British arrogance” stance with Jeremiah and trust him. They gradually become friends.
Readers will meet a group of natives called Thugs who kill for ritual sacrifice purposes. We are told they will not kill any British person because they are an unworthy and disgusting bunch and not worthy of their sacred rites. Who are they really and are they a threat to Avery and Jeremiah? The reader will not be able to put this down because it’s so riveting in unique ways.
M. J. Carter is a master writer who knows how to populate a story with unusual characters, an unpredictable fierce plot, and enough indirect and ironic satire to condemn the entire East India Company although the reader isn’t sure about that until well into the complex plot.
Fine, fine novel that is highly recommended historical fiction! It would make quite a unique movie!