The term ‘sweeping epic’ is used so often it has become a cliché, but it’s actually an accurate description of The Far Pavilions. M. M. Kaye takes us on a journey across 19th century India and Afghanistan, during which we witness some of the major turning points in the history of those two countries.

Ashton Pelham-Martyn is born in India, the son of British professor Hilary Pelham-Martyn and his wife Isobel. When both of his parents die within a few years of each other, the four year-old Ash is brought up by Sita, the wife of his father’s Hindu groom, unaware that he is not actually Indian. Several years later, after Sita’s death, Ash learns the truth about his birth and is sent to school in England. Eventually he returns to India to serve in the British army, but finds that his loyalties are torn between his Indian friends and the members of his regiment.

The Far Pavilions is the story of Ash’s struggle to find his identity. At the heart of the story is a forbidden romance between Ash and the Hindu princess, Anjuli. However, that’s only one aspect of the book. Non-romance fans will enjoy the action and adventure, descriptions of military life or simply learning more about 19th century British-ruled India. Most of the battles and other historical events mentioned in the book did actually take place and several of the characters, such as Walter Hamilton and Louis Cavagnari, were real historical figures.

Of all the historical fiction books I’ve read, this is one of the most detailed and well researched. Whilst reading this book I’ve learned a huge amount about 19th century British India, from the names of mountains and rivers, details of battles and mutinies, facts about Hindu and Islamic culture, right down to the various types of flora and fauna. We encounter a large number of Indian words and phrases which feel natural and add to the authenticity of the story. M. M. Kaye spent many years living in India which explains how she was able to write so convincingly about the country and its people. It’s also interesting that although the author was British, she uses various characters in the novel to explore conflicting opinions on whether British rule was a good or a bad thing for India.

At more than 950 pages, it does sometimes feel as if the book will never end. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it’s one of those books that pulls you into the story so much that you don’t really want to reach the last page and leave behind the characters you’ve spent so much time with. The main storyline comes to a natural end around page 700, and the book could perhaps have finished at this point. The final 200 or so pages deal with the Second Anglo-Afghan War – still interesting to read about but this could have been the subject of a separate book.

 

Other Reviews:

Daily Telegraph: "A long, romantic adventure story of the highest calibre...wildly exciting"

Jan Morris in The Times: "A Gone With the Wind of the North-West Frontier"

Sunday Express: "a massive, meticulously researched and fascinating saga about the British in India, encompassing a quarter of a century, from the mutiny up to the war with ferocious Afghan tribesmen"

The Times: "Rip-roaring, heart-tugging, flag-flying, hair-raising, hoof-beating...the very presence of India"

Evening Standard: "Magnificent is the only possible description for The Far Pavilions... not one of its 950 pages is a page too much"

Observer: "Incredible"

Harry Secombe: "For me the find of the year was The Far Pavilions"

Spectator: "A triumph"