My thanks to Agora Books for inviting me to take part in this blog tour, for which I received a proof of In The Mirror, A Peacock Danced. This review forms my honest opinion.
Agra, 1938: Eighteen-year-old Florence Hunt has grown up riding horses past the Taj Mahal and chasing peacocks through her backyard under the critical gaze of her father. Increasingly enamoured with his work on the booming railway, Florence yearns to know more, but finds herself brushed away, encouraged only to perform the more ladylike hobbies of singing and entertaining guests. So when a dazzling young engineer walks into her life, she finds herself not only gripped by secret lessons in physics but swept entirely off her feet.
Portsmouth, 1953: Fifteen years later, Florence finds herself pregnant and alone in post-war England – a far cry from her sun-drenched existence in India. Struggling to cope with the bleakness of everyday life in a male-dominated world, Florence is desperate to find the woman she used to be. But when someone from her past reaches out, Florence might just have a chance to start over.
Soaring from the shimmering heights of the big top to the depths of heartbreak, can Florence find the happiness, independence, and passion she once had in order to start living again?
Set against the lush backdrop of early 20th-century India, In the Mirror, a Peacock Danced – the debut novel from Justine Bothwick – is the moving story of one woman’s journey back to herself.
As well as having one of the most beautiful covers I’ve seen this year, this was an equally beautiful read.
I was drawn to this novel as this year I’ve been researching our family trees, and have discovered the true extent of the connection of my husband’s family to India, who lived in Pondichery for several generations, before coming to England in the 1950s. I’ve recently been talking to my mother in law about it, and she has recollections of the family being treated differently in England because of their mixed ancestry and their skin colour, much in the way that Robert, Florence’s son is singled out within the book. It’s a bizarre sense of displacement brought about by male power. That those who were born in India to the colonial powers are expected to identify as being ‘English’ (or French in the case of my husband’s family) and yet have never set foot into those countries. In the case of my husband’s family, they have relatives in both India and Burma (Myanmar) – far more than they have in this country and so much of who they are have been formed by those countries, their parents and grandparents etc etc having being raised there. It’s a really interesting take on nationality vs identity. This question particularly struck me during this book, when Jay is talking to Florence about his time spent studying in England, her ‘home’ and yet to her it is a far off place that she’s only heard about in stories. India is her home. Sita, her amah, is to all intents and purposes her mother. And so when she eventually goes to England it feels wrong to her and she yearns for India.
This is a world ruled by men, the colonial setting – the ultimate show of power and control within a patriarchy, really demonstrates just how dominated Florence is made to feel as a young woman, but her need to achieve more than is expected pulls parallels with the strengthening demand of independence for India herself.
This is a constant theme throughout the book, the feeling of struggling within confines and not quite fitting in. Young Florence is keen minded with an interest in engineering and mathematics, and yet because she is female this interest is quashed rather than nurtured, and although her father is keen for her to be someone ‘special’ this has to be on his terms, determined by his thoughts on what are suitable for a young woman.
This book feels so alive. The sense of place is strong and vibrant, particularly in those chapters based in India, which read in sharp contrast to the grey, dull feel of England. My main concern was that the balance between story and historical politics would be too heavily weighted towards politics, however this is not the case. The historical aspect is perfectly pitched and in keeping with, most probably the level of knowledge that Florence herself would have had. Events are observed through her eyes, on the ground as it were, and the information relayed is to understand the context of what happened, but I found it also piqued my interest and I began some of my own reading based off this.
I expected this to be a love story. But it isn’t – at least not in the traditional sense. This is about a woman who throws off convention, to find the person she truly is, discovering the confidence to finally be that woman. She learns to love herself, shutting off the world who tells her she is wrong. That she doesn’t fit.
And I loved it. It is gorgeously written and I ended the book with a feeling of empowerment and of hope. Whilst the book deals with oppression of many kinds, it also speaks to the power of following your own dreams and owning who you are. It has been a real joy to read and I don’t hesitate for a second to recommend.
About the Author
Justine Bothwick grew up in Kent and Hampshire, and studied in London. In 2005, she moved to Italy and now teaches English in an international secondary school in Rome. She is married to a Roman architect. Together they have a flat in the city with a small balcony on which she grows her ever expanding collection of plants and watches the local birdlife.
Justine is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School’s Creative Writing MA programme and has short stories published in Fictive Dream, Virtual Zine, Confingo Magazine, and forthcoming in The Lonely Crowd, and with Nightjar Press.
In the Mirror, a Peacock Danced is her debut novel.