4.30.2015

The Strangler Vine, by M.J. Carter

The Strangler Vine
"Strangler vine" is a common name for several different species of Ficus—what they have in common is that they latch onto a host plant and and use it to climb into sunlight. Sometimes, they kill their hosts. Given than M.J. Carter's novel, The Strangler Vine, is about the British East India Company and the Thuggee, it's a very apropos and evocative image to summon.

India in 1837 is the place that younger sons with no prospects go to make their fortunes. William Avery, a third son from Devon, is the very model of a junior officer of the East India Company, rotting away in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta*) and racking up gambling debts. Because there is no one else to send, Avery is sent to drag a former Company man named Jeremiah Blake out of his house to respond to an official summons. Then Avery is dragooned into following Blake on his mission to find a author and poet who went missing in Thuggee territory. Both Avery and Blake have to be threatened into taking the mission. On top of it all, Avery is given the task of keeping an eye on Blake. The man has "gone native" and is no longer entirely trusted by the Company.

Because Avery is a typical British officer, we see India through prejudiced eyes. Avery finds the people bizarre, superstitious, and criminal. Their customs are mostly abhorrent. Only the Company, Avery thinks, can bring "civilization" to India. Blake thinks the complete opposite and, for a while, their journey towards Jabalpur (formerly Jubbulpoor) reads like the Odd Couple in India. Blake shuts Avery out of his search for the missing author Mountstuart. Once they arrive in Jabalpur, Avery has started to win Blake's trust (barely) and is starting to learn that their mission may be about more than tracking down a wayward author.

In Jabalpur, Avery and Blake meet William Henry Sleeman, who is in charge of the Thuggee Department. Sleeman has an impressive reputation for making the roads safe from dacoits (bandits) and Thuggee, but the city of Jabalpur simmers with unrest. Avery and Blake are repeatedly told that, for their own safety, they must be locked in at night. They are escorted by Sleeman's men everywhere. It doesn't take much for even the trusting and loyal Avery to work out that something is very wrong with the operation in Jabalpur.

The Strangler Vine takes some time to ramp up, but once it does, it's a terrific ride. Carter captures something of old India in this book. There are tiger hunts and zenanas, open air cataract surgery, racism, radical politics, and a lot of hair-raising fights. Carter's use of the old style spellings, while jarring at first, really helped me sink into the setting. The only criticism I have of this book is that it was too short. I wanted more time with Avery once he wised up about the Company and got over his distain for all things and people Indian.

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* Place names and Hindustani words are written using the historical spellings. I spent an instructive half hour or so on Wikipedia working out where this story was taking place. I'm using the modern spellings in my review.

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