I’ve procrastinated writing my review for Belonging (Umi Sinha’s debut novel) hoping to gain some distance … to disentangle myself, be objective and coherent but even with over a month lapsing since I finished reading, I still feel the same. Belonging is a powerful novel.
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Myriad Editions (17 Sept. 2015)
Set during the years of the British Raj, Umi Sinha’s unforgettable debut novel is a compelling and finely wrought epic of love and loss, race and ethnicity, homeland – and belonging.
Lila Langdon is twelve years old when she witnesses a family tragedy after her mother unveils her father’s surprise birthday present – a tragedy that ends her childhood in India and precipitates a new life in Sussex with her Great-aunt Wilhelmina.
From the darkest days of the British Raj through to the aftermath of the First World War, BELONGING tells the interwoven story of three generations and their struggles to understand and free themselves from a troubled history steeped in colonial violence. It is a novel of secrets that unwind through Lila’s story, through her grandmother’s letters home from India and the diaries kept by her father, Henry, as he puzzles over the enigma of his birth and his stormy marriage to the mysterious Rebecca.
BELONGING has been longlisted for the Historical Writers Association Goldbsoro Debut Crown 2016 and shortlisted for the Authors Club Best First Novel Award 2016.
Hooking the reader in from the beginning? Belonging certainly does that. I had so many questions about the opening scene in 1907 in Peshawar with Lila aged 12. It isn’t until much later in the story we find out the significance and I spent some time gathering my thoughts to make a whole.
I wanted to take away Lila’s pain as she travelled to England. I could feel her grief so sharply. Arriving in a place so totally alien to what she was used to. A sentence misunderstood makes her determined to not say anything and so she chooses to become mute. Umi Sinha has Lila’s social, mental and emotional health spot on for a teen in crisis.
A child’s perception and the misunderstandings that follow (because as adults we forget their worldview is very different to ours) is a thread in the story. Often we think children ‘know’ things and don’t share and the child’s subjective thoughts cause them no end of angst. It forms their perceptions of themselves as it does in Belonging with Lila and her father Henry. A lack of positive female role models through the generations is also a theme which impacts heavily on the story.
I loved the format of the storytelling. The history of the preceding generations is told by Henry via his journal starting in Bengal in 1868 when he is an 11 year old and letters written by Cecily (Henry’s mum) from the time she’s on-board SS Candia in September 1855 on her way to spend her life with husband to be Arthur. Their stories weave in and out, laying the foundation and building the story. The timelines are not linear, however I wasn’t confused about who, what, where. There is a family tree at the beginning of the book with the narrator’s names highlighted in capitals should it be needed.
I have to admit there is one person I misjudged (which I actually felt guilty about!). Emotionally invested in all our key characters meant that I felt a host of emotions – some positive and some negative!
Umi Sinha brings the settings in India and Sussex alive. It was so easy to visualise the place and the time. The scenes in Cawnpore and the makeshift Indian hospital during WW1 in the Royal Pavilion, Brighton are etched on my heart. I recommend you visit Umi’s website to find out more about the historical background.
The ending is perfect for the overall ambience of the story. I don’t always need a ‘happy ever after’ or a definite conclusion in the stories I read … but I do like to end on hope.
My review can’t possibly do justice. Belonging is a story I won’t be able to forget.
I would like to thank the publishers for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.
Connect with Umi Sinha