“For you, I will write of it all—part truth, part memory, part nightmare—my life, the one that started so long ago, in a place so far from here . . .”
India, 1839: Linny Ingram, the respectable young wife of a British colonial officer, settles down to write her life story. In the claustrophobic, mannered world of British India, Linny seems the perfect society wife: pretty, gracious, subservient. But appearances can be deceptive. Linny Ingram was born Linny Gow, an orphan raised in the cold, gray slums of Liverpool. Sold into prostitution by her stepfather when she was only eleven, Linny is a born survivor and an accomplished chameleon and manipulator. Through a stroke of luck and considerable scheming, she manages to re-create herself as a proper Victorian young lady, middle-class and seemingly respectable. By befriending a merchant’s daughter, Linny secures a place with her new companion on a ship bound for India, where they will join “the fishing fleet”—young women of good birth but no fortune who sail to India in search of a husband.
India, with its exotic colors, sights, and smells, is a world away from the cold back alleys of Linny’s childhood. But even there, she is haunted by her past, and by the constant threat of discovery. To secure her place in society, she marries Somers Ingram, a wealthy British officer with secrets of his own. Soon Linny discovers that respectability and marriage bring a new kind of imprisonment, as well as the same menace and violence that she thought she had escaped. But Linny is not about to surrender easily. In the lush tropics of India she finds not only the means for rebellion but also the love and freedom she never had in England.
We had been at sea almost four months. Swallows swooped near the railings, indicating land nearby. Mrs. Cavendish likened these busy, twittering creatures to the dove with its olive branch. She was right, and within another day villages were spotted along the coast. The water became noisy with dozens of tiny rocking boatloads of Indians. Bumboat men, Mrs. Cavendish called them, shouting to be heard over the cries of the villagers as they boasted of their merchandise, hoping to sell coconuts, bananas, or tamarinds. I hung over the railing, watching as the natives threw ropes with baskets attached over the ship’s side. Some of the crew called down to them in a strange tongue that I couldn’t identify, putting coins into the baskets. The baskets were lowered, and then came up again, filled with whatever the sailors had requested. I longed to try the strange-looking fruit, but Mrs. Cavendish, with a slight shake of her head, indicated that it would be beneath us to purchase anything in this way.
During the last few days, as we grew ever closer to our destination, excitement grew in me. At first I attributed it to the beauty of the water and sun, the flying fish sending little droplets of water onto the smooth sea, but then realized it was something else. I detected a difference in the atmosphere, and whether it was the air itself or the degree of heat I couldn’t say. Perhaps the smells carried in the wind contributed to the unexplained breathlessness I experienced. My nose filled with the strange smells of an unfamiliar populace, the scents of unknown vegetation. I felt as heady as I had when twirled in my first quadrille. —from The Linnet Bird
From the Hardcover edition.
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Published May 17, 2005
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