Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for East of the Sun includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Julia Gregson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions for Discussion
1. Viva’s decision to return to India is a complicated one. What does she expect to discover? What life does she want to create for herself? How does that change over the course of the novel?
2. The notion of home is an important theme in the novel. Contrast the homes that the girls leave behind with the ones that they create. Viva and Tor thrive in the foreign setting and relative freedom of India, while Rose’s new life is tinged with nostalgia. What constitutes home for each? Discuss the thrills and perils of being a young woman in the Fishing Fleet, leaving home for the unknown.
3. The author frequently uses rich, colorful imagery to describe the exotic sights of India. How do the sensual descriptions of India contrast with those of England? How do the descriptions and images of daily life differ?
4. Rose and Tor have no education and little information to prepare them for relationships with men. In what ways does this sexual innocence harm them? What cultural or antiquated attitudes contribute to the gap between what’s expected of them and what’s shared with them?
5. Ci Ci Mallinson and Daisy Barker each act as guides, though of very different sorts. What type of woman, and type of influence, does each represent? Why is Bombay so inhospitable to independent women like Daisy? Why is the sort of independence that Daisy possesses and inspiring work that she does so essential to Viva?
6. Tor and Viva are polar opposites when it comes to romance; Tor throws herself into love too easily, while Viva always holds herself back. Consider the past experiences that explain their behavior and the new experiences that change it.
7. In what ways does working with the children at Tamarind provide Viva with a new purpose? What does she learn from them and how does she reexamine her own life as a result?
8. Guy is a malevolent force in Viva’s life, a cause of fear and distress and, ultimately, danger. But his actions also precipitate many pivotal moments in her relationship with Frank. Discuss how Guy is both a negative and a positive force in Viva’s life.
9. Did you feel sympathy for Guy, as Viva did? Why does she continue to take pity on him despite all that he does?
10. Toby tells Viva that “the English are neurotically private.” (page 486) Discuss the ways that Rose and Viva live up to that description. How does their reserve complicate their friendships and relationships? What is the significance of the fact that Rose is “a soldier’s daughter”(page 244)?
11. The unrest in India and the growing resentment of the British rumbles in the background for most of the novel, and many of the characters seem unwilling to acknowledge it. How would you characterize the attitude of the British toward the country? In what ways does the author convey the precariousness of their position in India?
12. References to birds appear throughout the novel, and the author sometimes compares the women to birds; for example, she writes “their plumage is quite varied.” (page 42) What do these analogies convey about the women? About the setting?
13. When Viva tells Frank about her mother, he asks, “Don’t you think most people make their parents up?” Do you agree with him? How did the made-up story of her parents’ deaths shape Viva’s life?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Invite your reading group to learn more about the women of the Fishing Fleet and hear Julia Gregson discuss her research for the novel in this BBC interview: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/02/2008_42_fri.shtml
2. As you discuss the characters’ experiences in India, experience a little bit of India yourself. Serve Indian food and drinks from a local restaurant or try your hand at making it with recipes from www.indianfoodforever.com.
3. What was Bombay like in the 1920s when the characters arrived? Look for books on India at your local library or print out photos such as those at http://oldphotosbombay.blogspot.com/ which displays historical images of Bombay.
A Conversation with Julia Gregson
How did you come to write the story of three women in the Fishing Fleet? The novel captures three characters and three distinct points of view. Did you base them on real women?
I have always been fascinated by India. When I was a child, our family rented the top floor apartment of a large and freezing country house in Hampshire that belonged to a woman called Mrs. Smith-Pearse. She’d gone to India, aged eighteen, as a member of the Fishing Fleet, married there, stayed for close to thirty years, and had only recently returned to England. I was five when we first met; she was sixty. I loved everything about her: her battered tweeds, her honking laugh, her wonderful stories about snakes under the bath, tiger hunts with maharajahs, the three-day treks on ponies up to Simla. I followed her around like a shadow, and sometimes she’d let me dress up in tiny silk saris, spice-scented tunics and salwar kameeze, produced like magic from her mother-of-pearl trunk. Four years ago, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a box of tape recordings she’d made when she was very old. It was then I realized how hard her life had been in India, too.
My other influence was my husband’s mother, Violet, another Fishing Fleeter, who’d had the time of her life in India and who missed it for the rest of her life. Both these women fired my imagination, but none of the characters in East of the Sun are exactly based on them. My aim was to bring to life take three very different young women and imagine the terror and the excitement they would feel at being sent halfway across the world, often unchaperoned, to find husbands. I wanted to show the madcap speed with which some of them married, to think about the humiliation of failing and being shipped back home a “Returned Empty.” As a marriage market, the system left a lot to be desired.
Rose and Tor arrive in India with everything they’ll need for parties and social events, but little practical information. Building marriages and lives must have been difficult, especially in unfamiliar territory. Based on your research, what do you think were the biggest challenges that faced women arriving in India? How did they overcome them?
For young girls, the immediate challenge—rarely stated or acknowledged—was to find a man. To do this, one had to meet the right people, to go to parties and polo matches, to fit in with a very small, enclosed, and sometimes frightened group of people. Lots of fun on the surface, but the rules of engagement were clear: you had to conform, to look good, to dress well, and not to say anything that might frighten the horses. Bluestockings and eccentrics were not well tolerated. India itself was another challenge. Some women fell in love at first sight, others hated it: the stinks, the poverty, the heat, the feeling of being cut off from Europe.
Marriage brought a new set of problems, and the realization that the India that could give such pleasure took in equal measure. My childhood heroine, Mrs. Smith-Pearse, spoke on the tapes of the agony of sending children sent home to be educated.
“It was the biggest decision we all had to make: husband or child.”
Passionately fond of nursing—she’d served with distinction in France in 1917—in India, she was allowed only to run a few village clinics. Working memsahibs were frowned on.
Other women of the Raj spoke to me of botched births in remote areas, of burying young children, of flies and heat and snakes, of runaway or workaholic husbands. All of this made me determined in East of the Sun not to make my female characters into the usual caricatures of the memsahib—ginswilling, narrow-minded snobs. Some were magnificent; some deserved our contempt; most didn’t.
Your descriptions of Indian cities and riding the trains feel vivid and authentic. Did you travel to all the places you described?
I’d been to Bangladesh as a foreign correspondent after the war there in 1973 to do a series of stories on orphanages and to interview women who had been raped after the war. My description of the orphanage at Tamarind Street in East of the Sun drew on these experiences.
While I was writing the book, I went back to India twice: once to Rajasthan and Shimla with my husband and daughter, and once on my own to Bombay. I love this kind of travel, with all your antennae out. I went up to Poona to see the polo fields, the ghostly old Raj houses where the British had lived, and to the military hospital where my husband was born.
The India you describe was at a turning point, and the novel is set against a backdrop of unrest and resentment of the British. Was it difficult to capture the intimacy of these women’s lives and also the sweep of the historical events?
I thought very carefully about this. I spent months reading about the history of India at that time and then (maddening!) had to discard most of my research because my girls were very young and often entirely oblivious to the great changes going on around then. In order to be authentic, historical events had to be glimpsed at—a sudden glare from a native; an unwelcome protest on one’s way to a party; a bore at the club going on about unrest. It would have been out of character for them to discuss politics in any depth or with any great understanding.
What happened to women like your characters as the Indian-British relationship shifted? Were the women who had been part of the Fishing Fleet able to maintain the same lifestyle?
At midnight, on August 15, 1947, India became an independent nation.
Although many members of the Raj had started to see the writing on the wall during the ’30s and ’40s, for others going home must have been a terrible shock. Most of them had been living above their means in India, a comparatively luxurious life impossible to replicate in the United Kingdom on small pensions and without servants. Some went to Spain, attracted by a better climate and a lower cost of living; others had to make do in an England worn out by war and suffering the worst winter of the century.
Most of the maternal relationships in the novel are distant or absent, and there’s very little communication between the generations. Was this the cultural norm or a conscious choice for women at the time? Looking back now, what impact do you think this had on mothers and children?
It was the cultural norm when children reached the age of five or six to send them home to boarding schools in England. Many parents, who’d been sent home themselves, believed that if their children stayed with them in India, they might catch some awful disease, or be spoiled by their nannies, or pick up what were called chi chi accents—the singsong voices that their ayahs spoke to them in.
This system, although accepted, caused a great deal of inarticulate suffering on both sides. Boarding schools were tough places: boys were beaten, rooms generally unheated, and holidays, where you were farmed out to relatives or friends, often joyless and tricky.
After years apart, relationships between parents and children were often fractured, formal, and at arm’s length. One of the few positive things you could say about this system was that it did make children very self-sufficient, and that, occasionally, if they didn’t like their parents to start with, they found families they preferred in England.
Daisy Barker, Viva, and the enterprising women like them offer a surprising contrast to the high society of Bombay. Was it common for women to teach and live independently? Would you tell us a little more about Indian women, like Viva’s neighbors, who were choosing education and a more liberated path at this time?
Women like Daisy Barker and Viva and others who went out as social workers, teachers, nannies, and secretaries were in the minority in India in 1928. Most middle-class English women of that era didn’t have careers or professional qualifications or go to university.
One woman put it to me like this: “We had no keys, darling: no keys to a house, or a car, or a job, or an education.”
As for Indian women of that time, although most were illiterate, in cosmopolitan cities like Bombay, among the professional and upper classes, a small but determined feminist movement was growing, and women like my characters Dolly and Kaniz were starting to be trained as teachers, lawyers, and social workers.
The novel offers a wonderful portrait of female friendship and how it can sustain us. Was it important to you to display what a powerful force friendship can be in women’s lives? Why do you think this topic, though not unfamiliar, has such eternal appeal to readers?
While I was writing this book and trying to pull together its various strands, I had a moment of truth when I realized that it was about friendship. I thought about how much we need our friends, not just for laughs and what-the-hell days (all of which I absolutely approve of ), but to see us as we are and to understand our dreams. These are the friends who encourage and bully us to move from one stage of life to another. And of course, when you were in India, and thousands of miles away from home and family, friends were even more crucially important.
Would you describe your writing process? How long did you spend working on this novel?
The novel took me two and a half years to write, but I was also doing some teaching and short story writing in between in order to make a living.
My husband and I live in the country in Wales, in a very ancient farmhouse by a stream. We have a horse and two dogs, and bizarrely, they are all part of the writing process. It’s often while walking along the riverbank or taking my old Welsh horse for a ride that my mind is freed from shopping lists and plans and feels most connected with what it is I’m trying to say. But much as I love the idea of the muse striking, she’s famously unreliable. You do have to develop a sort of peasant-like doggedness and show up in your study each morning and get the stuff down. On bad days, I feel as if I am, to quote Graham Greene, “doing nothing badly.”
On good days, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do work I love and to make a living out of it.