OLIVIA AND JAI
By Rebecca Ryman
St. Martin's. 644 pp. $19.95
It is 1848 and Queen Victoria sits on the throne in England; the British Raj is in full swing in India, the Hooghly River sweeps wide and muddy and brown through the city of Calcutta, and Olivia O'Rourke, fresh from Sacramento, Calif., has arrived with a derringer in her pocket to spend a year with her English relatives.
"Olivia and Jai" by Rebecca Ryman (a pseudonym for the Indian author, according to the book's publishers), is a smashing, sensual story of love and passion, hatred and loss, innocence and avarice, retribution and forgiveness. Ladies swoon, pulses accelerate and cutthroat competition abounds among the exporters of China tea and indigo and cotton and opium. This is the gilded 19th-century India of imagination; mosquitoes don't bite, though mosquito nets are sometimes tucked in by the ayah; poverty and caste are acknowledged but only on the periphery of the sheltered compounds of the arrogant British rulers. The air is scented with the pungency of marigolds and the perfume of roses from the gardens of the memsahibs; the smell of cooking ghee and human sweat and festering garbage and the fumes of coconut-oil lamps are not noted.
This is not the haunting country of Paul Scott's "The Jewel in the Crown," nor E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India," though it demonstrates the same anti-Indian prejudice held by the British rulers. This novel is more like M.M. Kaye's lush, tear-spilling bestseller of a dozen years ago, "The Far Pavilions," and it is a worthy successor.
Olivia is a refreshing character. From the first moment she appears she jumps off the page, lively and healthy, sharp-witted and independent, and, well, just too damn egalitarian for the comfort of some. She gives her aunt, Lady Bridget Templewood, positive conniptions with her behavior. Which is just as well, considering what Lady Bridget will have to contend with when her daughter, Estelle, starts her own rebellion. Olivia says what she thinks. She does what she wants to do, and she falls helplessly in love with the most unsuitable man in Calcutta, the mysterious Eurasian Jai Raventhorne.
There is a delicious sexual tension generated between Olivia and Jai in the early days of their secret love affair. Rebecca Ryman writes compellingly of two people's tortured infatuation with each other. There is a modern truism that states that "absolute submission can be a form of freedom." Poor Olivia believes that and pays a terrible price.
About a third of the way through the novel, we see Olivia reading a newly published book she has just been sent from England, "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte, which was "creating a literary sensation in London." (Actually, the book was not a great success when it was published in 1847, and Olivia could not possibly have known it was written by Emily Bronte as it was published under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell.) But immediately we grasp the significance of Olivia's reading choice. Jai Raventhorne's life, like Heathcliff's in "Wuthering Heights," is dominated by the desire to destroy the family that had treated him so cruelly years before. He is demonic in his pursuit of that ambition. Like Heathcliff, he is dark and handsome and savage; like Heathcliff he is of mixed race; like Heathcliff he surrounds himself with dogs; like Heathcliff he never eats (Heathcliff dies of starvation); like Heathcliff, he has a sadistic kink that makes him both dangerous and fascinating.
If I were to nit-pick, I would like to have had even more of the "specificness" of Calcutta. Oh sure, as Olivia would say, there are lots of burra khanas and tiffins and tiger hunts and maharajahs sprinkled around, but there were times when I felt I could be reading about these events taking place in some equally exotic and far-off place, like Bali or Istanbul, and been none the wiser.
And one last thing: In certain womanly scenes, making love, giving birth, dealing with small children, it seems to me that the author dwells too much on the pain and ugliness rather than the tenderness of the moment -- making me wonder about the author's sex. But then again, I am a suspicious creature.
It is to Rebecca Ryman's credit that, even after all the turbulence that Olivia and Jai set in motion and after we watch Olivia's radiant bloom fade and evolve into a tough cynicism and Jai's bitter pride crumble till he seems only a man, we still care about these two people. It is like watching two remarkable and likable friends trying to patch up their differences after an acrimonious divorce; one hopes, but one fears that too many nasty things have been done and said for it ever to work out again.
This is a ravishing, satisfying book and, despite its length, a real page-turner. The reviewer is the author of the novels "In Her Own Image" and "Family Business."