Desert Isle Keeper Review

Shadow of the Moon
(This DIK review was written by a reader)

M.M. Kaye
1979, Historical Fiction (1850s [Victorian] England and India)
St. Martin's, $4.50, 614 pages, Amazon ASIN 0312714106

Grade: A
Sensuality: Subtle

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

Many of you older readers out there may remember the smash bestseller The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye. I read the very lengthy (though flawed) novel and enjoyed it, but for me the true blessing that resulted from its success was the reissue of Kaye's earlier novels in their entirety, in particular Shadow of the Moon.

The early chapters of the novel focus extensively on the family history of its heroine, Winter de Ballesteros. Winter is the Anglo-Spanish only child of star-crossed lovers, Sabrina Grantham and Marcos de Ballesteros. Winter had an idyllic early childhood in India with her father's relatives, her mother having died at Winter's birth. Winter learns to speak four languages and is a close companion to her cousin Anne Marie. One of Kaye's gifts as a writer is the way she plausibly inserts her fictional characters into historic events, and Winter's bereaved father dies in the tragic retreat of the East India Company from Kabul, Afghanistan in 1842. Before her death, Sabrina had written a letter to her estranged grandfather the Earl of Ware, begging him to take charge of her daughter if anything happens to Marcos. Despite the Earl's earlier determination to renounce his granddaughter after her elopement with a foreigner (no matter how noble or wealthy), he cannot resist his beloved grandchild's dying wish, and he loves his little six-year-old great-granddaughter on sight. Only Lord Ware can see the child's potential, and the rest of the family treats Winter as a poor relation despite the fact that she is a considerable heiress with a title in her own right, the Condesa de los Aguilares.

Winter's English cousin Sybella is blonde and beautiful, an only child, and very spoiled. While the two children are companions from the time of Winter's arrival, in later years the relationship sours. Lord Ware is very concerned for Winter's future. An old man, he knows that he will probably not live long enough to ensure that his great-granddaughter marries the right sort of man. His heir, Huntly, cannot be depended upon to act in Winter's best interests. So when Conway Barton (nephew to Lord Ware's son-in-law) appears, he seems like the ideal solution to everyone's problems. It takes very little time for Conway to grasp the situation and take advantage of it. He is tall, blonde and handsome, and the only person besides Lord Ware and Winter's Indian nurse Zobeida to show the child affection. Eleven-year-old Winter and 36-year-old Conway become formally betrothed and then Conway goes back to his position in India, Winter's spiritual home. Winter has been entranced by Conway's (mostly fictitious) tales of India, the only place she was ever truly happy, and she carries a picture of Conway in her heart during the lonely years following his departure. There is a sinister side to Conway, however, and the reader soon realizes that he is a man devoted to only one thing in life: his own pleasure.

Our hero, Alex Randall meets the grief-stricken Winter at her great-grandfather's funeral. While she will never rival Sybella's classic, fashionable beauty, a few select men (usually the wealthy, titled ones) prefer Winter to Sybella. She has grown into a lovely, slender woman with enormous dark eyes, silky black hair reaching to her knees when unbound, and a heart-shaped face with ivory skin. Winter does not enjoy or admire her beauty, however, and she continues to dream of the day when Conway, now a district Commissioner in India, will return to England to claim his bride. When Captain Alex Randall arrives instead to escort Winter to Conway's side it is the first of many disappointments for her.

Alex is Conway's deputy. I like Alex so much that it is difficult for me to describe his carefully crafted character and do him justice. He's brave, hardworking, sometimes brutally honest, sensual, handsome and extremely intelligent. His ability with languages ensures that he can pass as a member of India's Pathan minority. Alex has the rare ability to see all sides of an issue, and in some ways empathizes more with the Indians than with the British. He considers his trip to England to be a waste of valuable time (he'd rather be back in India, where he has work to do) and after appealing in vain to Winter's guardians so they might stop the inadvisable marriage, he approaches seventeen-year-old Winter determined to shatter her illusions and prevent the debauching of an innocent.

Winter cannot believe Alex's description of Conway's degeneration into a dissipated wreck of a man. She is determined to join her betrothed and furious with the disloyal Alex. He is helpless to prevent himself from falling in love with Winter during their long sea voyage together, but he fights and denies his feelings - even to himself - until he comes very close to losing her forever. The conflict between his duty and his growing love for Winter is ever present throughout the novel, and gives great depth to his character.

Anyone familiar with the history of India knows of the Great Mutiny of 1857-59. A brief, bloody affair crossing religious and caste lines, it was a strike against the East India Company, which had the monopoly on India's trade and enforced it with a private military force, ruling much of the subcontinent with a ridiculously small number of European men, many of them officers. Winter and the friends she makes aboard ship are entering India at the worst possible time, one year before the Mutiny, when the Indian Sepoys (soldiers) massacred many feringhis (foreigners).

Winter is also forced to fight her growing attraction toward Alex, though she believes - rightly - that he regards her merely as a nuisance at times. Alex considers the situation in India so potentially explosive that European women are both endangered and a distraction for their well-meaning men folk, who have been taught that it is their first duty to protect and defend their wives and daughters. Once in India the reluctantly attracted Alex forgets himself, initiating a romantic moment that tests Winter's commitment to Conway, and a shattered Winter runs straight into the arms of her debauched and lecherous fiancÚ. Only after a few horrible months as Conway's bride can Winter acknowledge to herself that she is in love with Alex. But now Conway virtually owns her, and she has little control over her own life and property. She has the ability to speak flawlessly in an Indian tongue and can pass as Indian thanks to her unusual coloring. This ability saves her life and the lives of a few of her friends, including Alex, when they are struggling to survive the Mutiny and its aftermath. In the Indian sections of the novel, Kaye is a consummate stylist. One technique I particularly admire in this section is how she switches to formal pronouns (thee, thou) and archaic phrasing (shouldst, art, wouldst) to indicate when the characters are speaking one of the languages of India.

M.M. Kaye was the daughter of Anglo-Indians and writes with true love of the country and all its varied cultures. This novel helped spark my interest in the history of India and as a result my own library is blessed with some fascinating books that have reinforced my belief that M.M. Kaye wrote at least one truly great historical novel with a deeply moving love story.

-- Kari Skouson

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