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The Sleeping Dictionary (Daughters of Bengal, #1)

You ask for my name, the real one, and I cannot tell. It is not for lack of effort.

“In 1930, a great ocean wave blots out a Bengali village, leaving only one survivor, a young girl. As a maidservant in a British boarding school, Pom is renamed Sarah and discovers her gift for languages. Her private dreams almost die when she arrives in Kharagpur and is recruited into a secretive, decadent world. Eventually, she lands in Calcutta, renames herself Kamala, and creates a new life rich in books and friends. But although success and even love seem within reach, she remains trapped by what she is . . . and is not. As India struggles to throw off imperial rule, Kamala uses her hard-won skills—for secrecy, languages, and reading the unspoken gestures of those around her—to fight for her country’s freedom and her own happiness.”

The Sleeping Dictionary definitely impressed me. It’s Sujata Massey’s first non-mystery novel, and she did very well. I haven’t read any of her earlier work, but I might now. She really brings to life India right at the most major turn in its history, from colonialism to independence, seen through the eyes of one intelligent but impoverished young woman whose real name she cannot tell for various reasons.

I enjoyed so many different aspects of The Sleeping Dictionary, from its cover to the story, to the writing, to the rich historical detail. There’s scarcely a misstep in the book, and the writing just drew me in and swept me away. Massey’s descriptions felt so realistic, as if she had been in the places at the times she was writing about. I enjoyed the characters too; as one reviewer says, this is indeed historical fiction at its best, with all the ingredients necessary: compelling characters and an enthralling story, historical detail, and realism, as well as a gorgeous cover (although that’s neither here nor there).  I very quickly read 100 pages of the book before I knew it. It went by very quickly, but The Sleeping Dictionary is a pretty long book so don’t despair; you’ll have plenty of time to savor its beauty, its loveliness, its tragedy.

The way the book is organized helps make it much faster to read too; it’s divided into sections that aren’t too short or too long, and every part of the main character’s journey and life is very interesting (at least, it was to me). I’ll call her Pom, since that’s the first name she remembers. I really liked Pom as a character; she’s determined to succeed and despite her low caste and lack of formal education, she’s really good at English and words and just learning languages in general, something most people like her can’t do. After leaving Lockwood, she hopes to get a teaching position. It’s not as easy as it sounds, though.

There were a lot of great secondary characters too, from the upper class girl who befriends Pom at Lockwood, to the people she meets on her way to Calcutta. I did find the tyrannical Raechal at the school a bit unrealistic. She seems to enjoy being evil just for the sake of being evil, and I don’t think there are actually a whole lot of people like that. Her background story (as I’m sure she had one) just could have been fleshed out more. She wasn’t that convincing, but most of the other characters were, being mixtures of good and bad like actual people.

The Sleeping Dictionary wasn’t that difficult a book in terms of length, but some sections of the book were fairly disturbing in terms of subject matter, especially when Pom is in Kharagpur and is forced to work as a prostitute before being cheated out of all her savings. Once again her dreams of teaching are thwarted, but she’s still not ready to totally give up.

The term “sleeping dictionary” itself comes from a nickname for Indian women who became mistresses of British colonialists and also taught them a lot about Indian culture and language, because after all, the first Western people who came to India didn’t know the language.

I did find Pom’s fascination with Pinkaj, who was Bidushi’s fiance, a bit annoying. After all, she had exchanged letters with him (writing as Bidushi) but she never really met him, and it seemed to me unlikely that she would see him again. (Although she eventually does, of course). Overall, though, Pom’s narration was convincing and compelling. She’s fairly innocent, but not enough to not realize what’s going on at the house in Kharagpur she arrives in after leaving Lockwood. She wants to survive and be successful, but she also has her morals, and I liked this section of her journey, where she’s debating what choice to make. Throughout the book, its main character must make many difficult choices.

The Sleeping Dictionary was a rich, beautiful, and disturbing novel, which I would highly recommend to fans of historical fiction and books about India. I received a review copy from Gallery Books.

481 pages.

Rating: *****

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