Author: Nayana Currimbhoy
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“A murder at a British boarding school in the hills of western India launches a young teacher on the journey of a lifetime.
In 1974, three weeks before her twenty-first birthday, Charulata Apte arrives at Miss Timmins’ School for Girls in Panchgani. Shy, sheltered, and running from a scandal that disgraced her Brahmin family, Charu finds herself teaching Shakespeare to rich Indian girls in a boarding school still run like an outpost of the British Empire. In this small, foreign universe, Charu is drawn to the charismatic teacher Moira Prince, who introduces her to pot-smoking hippies, rock ‘n’ roll, and freedoms she never knew existed.
Then one monsoon night, a body is found at the bottom of a cliff, and the ordered worlds of school and town are thrown into chaos. When Charu is implicated in the murder—a case three intrepid schoolgirls take it upon themselves to solve—Charu’s real education begins. A love story and a murder mystery, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is, ultimately, a coming-of-age tale set against the turbulence of the 1970s as it played out in one small corner of India.”
Thoughts: Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is quite misleading. I was expecting an interesting coming-of-age story that just happens to take place in India. Instead, I found a complex novel of which a personal journey of discovery is only one small part of the overall plot. There is murder, love, intrigue, family secrets, and the ties that bind it all together. Combined with the always-fascinating backdrop of India, the result is an intriguing and seductive novel about the damage secrets can do to others and to oneself.
Charu Apte is not your typical heroine. She has big dreams but has been hampered by her birthmark, a prominent blot on her face. As a coping mechanism, she has always turned inward and stamped out any initiative in an effort to remain anonymous and invisible. She has always found it far easier to suffer in silence than to draw attention to herself. The reader gets a glimpse that things are changing for Charu with her initial position as a teacher at the British-run Miss Timmins’ School For Girls. As a teacher, she can no longer hide in the shadows but rather is forced to take a stand in order to maintain control of her classroom. This is only one of many changes for Charu as she discovers love, her purpose, and her voice.
Love is a huge theme in Miss Timmins’ School for Girls. Romantic love, platonic love, familial love, self-love – they drive the characters’ actions and cause them to make choices that may seem surprising or unusual. Charu is the biggest recipient of these various forces as she is compelled to delineate between the various kinds of love, compartmentalize them and face the consequences of her actions, yet everyone is driven by this key factor. The main actions in the novel are a direct result of choosing one type of love over another and puts these forces into perspective for the reader.
One cannot discuss this novel without highlighting the prominent influence the setting plays in the novel. When it comes to directing the characters’ actions, the setting becomes a character unto itself, as characters feel forced to act a certain way because of caste, societal influences, or even due to geography. Set in the 1970s, the prominence of drugs also plays a factor as it prevents Charu from immediate action but allows her to push aside key decisions for momentary distractions and peace. While the prevalence of drugs could have been overdone, quickly becoming cliched, Ms. Chirrumbhoy uses the drug scene to highlight the changing culture and growing awareness and deliberate ignorance of the restrictions of the caste system.
In Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, Nayana Chirrumbhoy presents a fascinating study of culture in flux. British influence clashes with the caste system, which clashes with the emerging hippie/beatnik culture. At the same time, the cast of characters must maneuver their way through this evolving culture and changing social mores; Charu is just the main character to traverse this slippery trail. Ms. Chirrumbhoy wisely allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about certain plot points, thereby enhancing the reader’s involvement and engagement in the story. Not to be read slowly, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls rewards patient and careful readers with a complex snapshot in time of a young woman coming of age ad experiencing the conflicting pulls of the different types of love in a wildly evolving society
Thank you to NetGalley for my e-galley!