Oxfordshire, 1947. Kit Smallwood, hiding a painful secret and exhausted from nursing soldiers during the Second World War, escapes to Wickam Farm where her friend is setting up a charity sending midwives to the Moonstone Home in South India. Then Kit meets Anto, an Indian doctor finishing his medical training at Oxford. But Kit’s light-skinned mother is in fact Anglo-Indian with secrets of her own, and Anto is everything she does not want for her daughter.
Despite the threat of estrangement, Kit is excited for the future, hungry for adventure, and deeply in love. She and Anto secretly marry and set off for South India—where Kit plans to run the maternity hospital she’s helped from afar.
But Kit’s life in India does not turn out as she imagined. Anto’s large, traditional family wanted him to marry an Indian bride and find it hard to accept Kit.
Summer Monsoon is the latest release by Julia Gregson and I was initially attracted to it since it is set in a newly independent India which is still being torn apart by violence and a deep mistrust for anything British. Before she left England, Kit had a very romantic image of what her life was going to be like in India, envisioning herself accomplishing great things with the maternity clinic, but the country proves to be far more hostile than she imagined and her lack of understanding puts her in increasingly dangerous situations. Although Anto was born in India and comes from a prominent Anglo-Indian family, he has spent most of his life at school in England so his memories of India have become just as romanticised as Kit’s and he struggles to find his place there.
The clash between the two cultures becomes evident right away when Kit and Anto arrive at his family’s home and while the Thekkedens appear welcoming, the narration switches to Anto’s mother, Amma, so we can see how appalled she is by her new English daughter-in-law and her perceived lack of manners. I wasn’t a fan of this change in point of view because I think the disapproval should have been evident in the way the family were interacting with Kit, particularly since Anto is away a lot of the time, rather than us having to be told directly.
The choice of narration was something I had trouble with throughout the book as I felt the wrong characters were being given a voice at the expense of more interesting ones. While it is obvious Kit is going to be the main narrator of the book, I would have liked to have seen her point of view contrasted by the Indian women she was working with at the clinic, such as Maya, or her patients, like Saraswati, a practicing lawyer. Since Gregson is keen to explore the effects of a patriarchal society, focusing on these two women in particular would’ve enriched this novel so much more for me because they are actually more interesting than Kit who is quite self-absorbed. Maya, a fellow midwife, is taking a great risk by even working because her husband doesn’t approve of his wife not being at home and he regularly beats her. However, Maya loves her work so much it is a risk she is willing to take so she can have something of her own outside of her family.
Saraswati’s family do not approve of her career so when she fails to produce a son, they blame her long working hours and lack of focus on her family. When Saraswati falls pregnant again, she decides to have her baby at Kit’s clinic in the hopes of producing a healthy son and her wish is granted but this birth is going to have consequences for Kit later on. When Saraswati’s son dies two years later, Kit is blamed but this part of the story makes no sense because it comes out of the blue and has no context within the story at that point. Kit is shocked by Saraswati’s accusations, believing her to be a friend, however Saraswati has not featured in the book since the birth so when did they become friends? When Kit later discovers Saraswati had no part in the allegations and has left her husband, the two women come together to fight the charges and form an intriguing partnership which could’ve been explored so much more.
If these three women’s stories had been told side by side throughout the novel, I think it would’ve made for a much better book. Anto’s narration really doesn’t add much, other than to throw more doubt over Kit’s ability to be a good Indian wife and he is far from being supportive. I really didn’t buy into Anto and Kit’s relationship as it happened too fast and seemed to be built on fairytales which meant neither of them were prepared for the reality of India. Those circumstances would’ve been okay if they had both gone on a steep learning curve and Kit had made some effort to assimilate into the culture instead of assuming she knew everything. The couple always seemed at their best when they were in bed together but there is more to a marriage than sex and Anto needed to grow up a little more to be in a position to support Kit.
While the narrative and the characters may not have done it for me, Gregson is excellent at descriptive passages and making the reader feel they are really there. The first few chapters are set in a bleak post-war England where people are still trying to come to terms with the ongoing effects of the war and winter is hitting hard. Then, we are presented with the colourful landscape of India which is a welcome relief to the greyness of England, but there is a dark underside to the exotic lushness and Gregson doesn’t shy away from showing the poverty.