In 1974 young Charulata Apte is coming to Miss Timmins' to teach English. She is a shy and innocent girl with a birthmark, she calls her 'blot'. One could see it as an indicator of her emotional state, because when Charu is in emotional turmoil it turns red and itchy. Miss Timmins' is a boarding school where Indian parents sent their daughters to get a British education. Charu befriends another young teacher called 'the Prince', a bold and troubled woman, and falls in love. But the Prince is found murdered some time later and Charu is one of the suspects. Now the time has come when life is teaching Charu lessons.
This book is a murder mystery as well as a coming of age story, but it also topics the caste system, sexuality and drug consumption. As varied as the topics are the characters who populate the story. There are Charu's parents and family, who have kept a secret from Charu for too long now; the teaching staff, with headmaster Nelson, who ALWAYS carries a white purse; Miss Raswani, the Hindi teacher with the crazy eyes and of course Miss Prince with whom Charu has an affair and who entertains a mysterious relationship with Miss Nelson. But there are also other people that inhabit the city around the school, like the inspector and most importantly the Panchgani crew with Merch, a group of bohemians who become Charu's friends.
I liked the complexity of this story. It's almost unbelievable that it is a debut novel. I also liked it's atmosphere, the mountains, the monsoon, the gloom, the isolation. Only the pacing of the writing did not always feel right. And in the end I found myself clueless as I could not tell the murderer.
Four deserved stars.
I got this book from the publisher HarperCollins via NetGalley.
For further reading, books about India: