A tender story of love, loss of innocence, and the aftermath of a terrible decision no one knew how to avoid.
London, 1957… In a bid to erase her past and build the family she yearns for, Sophie Schofield accepts a wedding proposal from ambitious British diplomat, Lucien Grainger. When he is posted to New Delhi, into the glittering circle of ex-pat high society, old wounds begin to break open as she is confronted with the memory of her first, forbidden love and its devastating consequences.
But this is not the India she fell in love with ten years before when her father physician to a maharaja, the India of tigers and scorpions and palaces afloat on shimmering lakes; the India that ripped out her heart as Partition tore the country in two, separating her from her one true love.
Sophie never meant to come back, yet the moment she steps onto India’s burning soil, she realises her return was inevitable. And so begins the unravelling of an ill-fated marriage, setting in motion a devastating chain of events that will bring her face to face with a past she tried so desperately to forget, and a future she must fight for.
“McQueen expertly captures the innocence and passion of young love-and how it can so quickly turn into something tragic when politics and the realities of adulthood get in the way. This historical page-turner deals out hope and heartbreak in turn, hurtling the reader toward its devastating denouement.” – Publishers Weekly
“Rich with history and a candid view of the racism, discrimination, and sexism of the day, McQueen’s historical novel provides more than a compelling story set in an exotic locale. Part mystery, part romance, it defines love’s bond through time.” – Booklist
“Bursting with the evocative glow of long-forgotten India, Under The Jewelled Sky lures you into a beautiful story of scandal, of hope, and the kind of love that marks us forever. An unforgettable, irresistible tale that wraps around your heart and won’t let go.” Kathleen Grissom, New York Times bestselling author of The Kitchen House
“Our must-read book of the month, Under The Jewelled Sky is a sure winner with book clubs.” Good Housekeeping, South Africa.
“McQueen has a fine sense of place and character… A richly imagined story of love, politics and fate.” – Kirkus
“McQueen effortlessly captures India at a crucial turning point in its history – the country is described so vividly that it becomes a character in itself …. with a heartbreaking ending, this is truly a captivating tale.” The Lady
“A sumptuously evocative novel about India.” Tripfiction
“Beautiful and brave and bittersweet — a moving story of how love in all its forms binds us together and endures, in spite of everything.” – Susanna Kearsley, New York Times bestselling author of The Firebird and The Winter Sea
Click here to read further reviews on Goodreads
Click here to read a further extract released by Orion
1947, The Maharaja’s Palace
Guided along by a silent lady-in-waiting, it was all Sophie could do not to stare open-mouthed at the opulence of the zenana. They had passed through a series of antechambers, marking the end of the outside world, separating the women’s palace, the architecture changing to a careful construction of windowless spaces with mirrored walls, delicate fretwork panels and shielded openings placed way up high beyond the reach of prying eyes. There were no secret doors here, no hidden panels or telltale lines in the marble. Sophie wondered if the dark passages extended this far into the palace, if she and Jag had passed behind any of these rooms, her hand held tightly in his. Perhaps he was there now, following her silently, listening for her footsteps.
Slow-moving punkahs waved regally from the high ceilings and enormous latticed arches, cooling the thin air as it moved through the women’s palace, taming the rising heat of the season. Rich perfume filled the rooms, deep notes of sandalwood and tuberose, thin trails of incense lifting from pierced brass ornaments placed intermittently on the floor. Freshly plucked flowers floated in wide stone dishes filled with crystal-clear water, punctuating the way to the First Maharani’s apartments, walls of pink marble inlaid with delicate designs of blue lapis lazuli and green agate, paintings hung upon them. Sophie kept her eyes averted, thinking of the painted faces of the men and women entwined together in the pictures gracing the walls of the Maharaja’s personal study. She had seen them only once, peering into the panels until she realised the nature of the depictions before turning quickly away, cheeks burning.
Two silk-upholstered seats, balloon-backed mahogany in Victorian style, had been provided for Sophie and Mrs Ripperton, while the First Maharani lounged on a raised dais covered in fine rugs, propped up on enormous cushions of bright jade green and saffron yellow, surrounded by her colourful retinue of ladies-in-waiting, who sat around her, two of them massaging her hands with perfumed oil, her wrists heavy with golden bangles.
Much to Sophie’s surprise, the Maharani’s command of English was unshakeable. On occasion, there would be a sudden break in the conversation and she would speak to her ladies in dialect, translating any salient or amusing points that had passed. Sometimes they would begin to converse among themselves, pausing to stare at Sophie, or at Mrs Ripperton, before chattering on or breaking into gales of laughter.
There was no need to be delicate here. The First Maharani loved to talk, asking question after question to satisfy her endless curiosity, and no subject was off limits. Sophie learned that Her Highness had been bethrothed to the Maharaja since her infancy, but never met him to talk to until they were married. She thought nothing of asking how much money one’s husband had, or about a woman’s personal relations, or what undergarments one was wearing. Mrs Ripperton was well used to this, and revealed to Sophie later that she had even lifted her skirt once to display her enormous petticoat, much to the ladies’ delight. The Maharani had promptly instructed her darzee to make a dozen of them for Mrs Ripperton in every shade, from scarlet to primrose, using her very best silks.
Today’s conversation had begun with some polite enquiries about the nearby mission, the Maharani aware that Mrs Ripperton was a keen volunteer there, and had then meandered to the general subject of religion, the women debating the pointlessness of the early missionaries who had attempted to convert India’s masses to Christianity. It was, after all, a relatively new religion in comparison to their many more thousands of years of idolatry. Mrs Ripperton joined in with gusto, debating the finer points of various Christian church rituals and listening with interest when the Maharani knocked her down.
‘Hindu wisdom says that we are but dreams of dreaming, which no real person dreams,’ explained the Maharani. ‘We are nothing, and the sooner we cease to have the horrible feeling of being something, the better. Everything is an illusion, and the sooner an illusion fades and we sink back into Brahma, the eternal place of nothingness, the sooner we shall escape this tormenting deceit called Life.’
‘Then why not just commit suicide and be done with it?’ Mrs Ripperton said, cheerfully accepting a sweet from the silver salver offered by one of the ladies and taking a confident bite.
‘Because then I would invite bad karma, and my life of good deeds would be entirely undone! Karma is very important. Live a good life. Be good. You never know when your time will come. I am not afraid of death. By living a good life, I am always ready, for one does not know when death will come, as it does, like a thief.’
‘Calmer? Whatever do you mean, Your Highness?’
The Maharani said something to her ladies, inciting a fit of giggles, then returned to Mrs Ripperton patiently. ‘To poison my imaginary body would only prolong the illusory agony, for I will be reborn in the form of my illusion, perhaps as a poisonous snake.’
‘How very peculiar.’
‘The deeds I do in this life will determine the destiny and the future incarnation of my soul. A man who steals honey may come back as a stinging insect. One who steals meat will appear as a vulture. The soul may crawl like a snake, bloom as a flower, or reign as a god, like the Maharaja himself.’ One of the Maharani’s ladies leaned into her ear and said something. The Maharani listened and smiled. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘A woman who dies in the lifetime of her husband goes at once to bliss, where she enjoys much blessedness and receives a crown.’
‘What if His Highness …’ Fiona searched for an appropriate expression for a dead king. ‘What if he expires before you do, Your Highness?’
‘I will tell you,’ she said. ‘Many years ago, my husband and I made an offering to the gods by fire, and that fire has been kept alive ever since. The first of us to die will have our funeral pyre lit with its sacred flame. It has the power to save the soul from rebirths.’ She leaned back on her cushion and smiled. ‘You may call it an insurance policy, if you like.’
‘I rather like the sound of all that,’ Mrs Ripperton said. ‘What about you, Sophie? What would you like to come back as?’
Sophie thought for a while, and could conjure only one thing. ‘A bird,’ she said tentatively. ‘A bird, so I could fly anywhere.’
‘Ah!’ said the Maharani. She spoke to her ladies again, and they all disappeared into deep conversation with no regard to their guests. Sophie sat and waited awkwardly, fiddling with her cup and saucer. The sweets did look awfully good, but she was afraid that if she accepted one, she might put it in her mouth and find it horrible, and that would be a problem indeed. She’d either have to spit it out, which was unthinkable, or eat it, which might turn out to be a great deal worse. Mrs Ripperton finished the last morsel of her confection, mumbling of its deliciousness, then noticed where Sophie’s eyes had fallen.
‘Help yourself, dear! I have no idea what they are, but they’re absolutely wonderful!’ Sophie smiled nervously. ‘Oh, don’t take any notice of them.’ Mrs Ripperton nodded towards the ladies, immersed in debate with the First Maharani. ‘They could go on for hours. Time is of no consequence here. As the Maharani says, “leave time for dogs and apes”. Rather good that, don’t you think? We’ll just sit here and listen or have a little natter between ourselves. It’s perfectly all right. If you express an interest in her baubles, the Maharani might even show you some of her jewels. She has a box of pearls the size of ping-pong balls!’
Noticing Mrs Ripperton’s mouth empty, one of the ladies offered her the dish again. This time, Sophie reached forward too, but before she could make her choice …
‘Try one of those, dear.’ Mrs Ripperton pointed at a tiny pastry affair with delicate layers, soaked in honeyed syrup, the top sprinkled with tiny pale green flecks. ‘They’re a bit sticky, but quite scrumptious!’
Sophie picked one up, half inspected it and popped it into her mouth. In a flash of panic, she realised immediately that she should have bitten it in half, the sweet just a little too big, but it had looked as though it would disintegrate at the merest wisp of breeze, so in it had gone, whole. She sat for a moment, unsure of what to do, then raised her hand delicately to her mouth to conceal the unavoidable ugliness of her first chew. One of the ladies watched on and nudged her smiling companion. Sophie shrugged a small apology and nodded her approval at them, her mouth plunged into utter bliss, the pastry melting into a rich sensation of heavenly sweetness, layer upon layer of delicate taste explosions dancing on her tongue. She accepted another smaller one from the quickly outstretched dish, and made a bungling attempt to express her appreciation in Hindi, much to the ladies’ amusement. Then, unable to help herself, she half closed her eyes, a murmur of satisfaction on her lips as she ate the sweet and enjoyed the ladies’ cheerful curiosity. One of them slid towards her, curling herself comfortably beside Sophie’s chair. Without asking, she took Sophie’s hand and opened it, examining her palm. Mrs Ripperton smiled at Sophie.
‘Isn’t this fun?’
Sophie nodded, widening her eyes, her free hand at her mouth again as she cleared the last remants. The lady-in-waiting traced Sophie’s lines with her fingertip, turning now and then to whisper to her companions before smiling up at Sophie, finally patting her hand and returning it to her before sliding away. Sophie watched all this with intense fascination, the way they sat together, almost entwined, one hand resting on another’s thigh, their saris spilling colourful silken folds that spread out about them. She turned to Mrs Ripperton and smiled in a way that she hoped would make up for the bicycle rickshaw incident. Fiona had excelled herself. Not only was this the most fun Sophie had had in ages, but it was piqued by an extra frisson of excitement simply by knowing just how enraged her mother would be if she had any idea where she was at this precise moment, deep in the very seat of heathen evil. It felt like a kind of paradise, this secret place of women, fragranced with flowers, heady jasmine oil and burning incense. She and Mrs Ripperton would never tell a soul that they had been here, and Sophie hoped more than anything that she would be asked to come back, and that she might be permitted to dispense with the chair and to lounge on fine rugs and silk cushions and lean in and hear the whispers that passed between them.
The First Maharani quietened her entourage with a wave of her perfumed hand and sat upright. All eyes turned to Sophie.
‘You must be in love,’ she said. One of her ladies leaned in and whispered something in her ear. The Maharani smiled. ‘A girl who wishes to become a bird must surely want to find her way to her lover, so that she may watch over him wherever he goes.’ She leaned back on her cushion, her jewellery tinkling. ‘So tell us, little bird, are we correct?’
Sophie flushed scarlet. She felt her blood racing, the fine hairs at the back of her neck rising and standing on end as though Jag had reached out invisibly from a hidden shadow and touched her, a small shudder passing through her flesh.
‘Sophie!’ Mrs Ripperton stared at her. ‘Have you been keeping secrets from your Aunt Fifi?’
‘Of course not.’ Sophie tried to compose herself while the First Maharani’s ladies laughed like hyenas, congratulating each other on the accuracy of their prediction. ‘Don’t be silly. It’s just a bit embarrassing to be laughed at, that’s all.’
‘I’m afraid your ladies are incorrect,’ Mrs Ripperton said to the Maharani, patting Sophie’s hand reassuringly. ‘Miss Schofield has yet to meet the love of her life. She was whisked away from England before she’d had a chance to set her cap at anybody, but I have no doubt that she’ll be swept off her feet soon enough when she gets back. You never know, she might even meet somebody while she’s out here! Perhaps we should ask Dr Reeves to invite his two sons for Christmas. I’ve seen a photograph of the older one. He’s a lawyer, and he’s really quite a dish!’
‘Dish?’ the Maharani said. ‘What is this dish?’
Mrs Ripperton explained the expression, the Maharani translating to her ladies. While the women of the zenana laughed along with Mrs Ripperton, the First Maharani set her eyes upon Sophie, and smiled a knowing smile.