No doubt it seemed like a good idea, after the author's success with "The Far Pavilions," to take this 1957 novel and reissue it with all the original editorial cuts restored. Well, as it turned out, it was. (Those cuts must have made "Shadow" into a mere shade of itself; we can only be grateful that Kaye hung on to her old manuscript until the Time of the Long Read arrived in the West.)
More than twice as long now as in its first incarnation, "Shadow of the Moon" relives the events leading up to the great Indian Mutiny of 1857, as well as the tragedy itself. The heroine, Winter de Ballesteros, is half-English, half-Spanish, and all Indian. Her passion for that country sustains her adolesence in frigid England until she flees at 17, sick with longing for the sultry sub-continent and also for a handsome British commissioner whom she remembers: India lives up to its billing, but Commissioner Barton doesn't, and the details of this discovery make a rich and full-bodied novel.
The action gets off to a depressing start as three women die in childbirth in the first six pages, not to mention two men in battle and also King George III. Kaye does sprinkle her pages generously with character, disposing of them just as prodigally, but eventually the supply outstrips the mortality rate and we are left with the survivors. With the introduction of the nubile Winter and Capt. Alex Randall, Barton's aide, who escorts her to India and, naturally, falls in love with her on the way, the pace steadies and the story gets into stride.
Kaye has been compared to both Margaret Mitchell and Tolstoy. One's first reaction to such epic pretensions is to lift a superior eyebrow. Heroines with 18-inch-waists may not be the definitive tip-off , but when the ship's list throws the girl into the man's arms instead of against a bulkhead, and there is "a strange magic in the hot night" to boot, a diagnosis of just another romantic novel seems clearly indicated.
Winter and Alex, though attractive and interesting, offer no more than convention demands. Winter especially, in the manner of all such heroines, begins beautiful and full of spunk and gets no further -- except to be disillusioned -- for hundreds of pages. Alex, on the other hand, does profit from the size of the book, which enables him to expand beyond the areas of love and civil administration into a couple of quite respectable adventures.
Two-thirds of the way along, though, it suddenly dawns upon the reader, if not upon Winter and Alex, that, after all, they play only supporting roles. India is the protagonist here, India at her most beguiling and at her most grotesque. The exotic fruits and golden-domed palaces, sandalwood and mystery, the hammering heat, raging disease and veiled barbaric violence all merge at last into a collage superimposed upon the ferocious events of the Sepoy Rebellion. This final, conflagration refines Winter, tempering her into a maturity to match Alex's -- and the book remains a romance after all. But it is a solidly researched romance that deals head-on with some of the unpleasant facts of Empire, the stupidities and cruelties on all sides, and the ambivalences of a few good men and women in such situations.
On the whole, 1957 was a very good year, and the book still tastes of it. Sex scenes are discreet, Russia is the ultimate world menace, and the hero is down on beards. All the old-fashioned verities are there: moral concern, male strength, honor between foes, sexual responsibility, female endurance, personal duty and loyality, or, as the girl in the vegetable oil commercial puts it. "What you call corn." By the end of this splendid novel, the reader little doubts that, in their time, these qualities made life slip down a little more easily.