Agra, 1938: Eighteen-year-old Florence Hunt has grown up riding horses past the Taj Mahal and chasing peacocks through her backyard under the critical gaze of her father. Increasingly enamoured with his work on the booming railway, Florence yearns to know more, but finds herself brushed away,
encouraged only to perform the more ladylike hobbies of singing and entertaining guests. So when a dazzling young engineer walks into her life, she finds herself not only gripped by secret lessons in physics but swept entirely off her feet.
Portsmouth, 1953: Fifteen years later, Florence finds herself pregnant and alone in post-war England – a far cry from her sun-drenched existence in India. Struggling to cope with the bleakness of everyday life in a male-dominated world, Florence is desperate to find the woman she used to be. But when
someone from her past reaches out, Florence might just have a chance to start over.
Soaring from the shimmering heights of the big top to the depths of heartbreak, can Florence find the happiness, independence, and passion she once had in order to start living again?
Set against the lush backdrop of early 20th-century India, In the Mirror, a Peacock Danced – the debut novel from Justine Bothwick – is the moving story of one woman’s journey back to herself.
India before independence always seemed to have that magical air about it. The British there to bring their wealth of knowledge, their customs and ways to a people considered uneducated, in need of a guiding hand to make them better.
Yet nothing could stay the same forever and when Bothwick introduced us to eighteen year old Florence you could sense that she and us were on the cusp of great change and upheaval.
Florence was wonderfully independent, so different from the girls she went to school with, boys not high on her horizon, instead her horse, the beauty of India and the railways her father worked on her first love. I loved that Bothwick gave her that stubborn wilfulness, not to make her a wilting flower, not spoilt by a father who mourned the death of her mother. In fact the father daughter relationship often seemed devoid of emotion, her father’s insistence she sing and dance with him, the attempt to make her into something she didn’t want to be put them at odds with each other. At heart I am sure he had the best of intentions, but maybe that was the only way he knew how to be a father, to show that he cared.
If Florence lacked a mother she did not lack female influence and I loved Sita, her aya who gave her all the maternal affection she craved and attempted to guide her in matters of love and life. Yet often we don’t want to listen and for Florence that wilfulness sprang to the fore, a forbidden love destined to be torn apart by war before being swept off her feet by a singer, her father delighted at such a match. Yet Musty wasn’t going to end things there as once again disaster struck, independence sent many British packing and Florence found herself in a dreary Portsmouth in 1953. Divorced and a little boy in tow, Musty plunged her into the dark depths of depression, a brief job in a factory saw happiness return, then marriage to man who promised much but delivered nothing and took Florence to her lowest point. I wondered if Musty had any happiness destined for Florence but I need not have worried as a surprise visit from a friend from India galvanised Florence into action.
Musty treated us to the delights of the circus of the wonderful connection between human and horse, of a Florence determined to find happiness and I had my fingers crossed that she would.
Musty may have made Florence’s search for happiness hard to reach, but it didn’t stop her conjuring up such wonderful images within her narrative, as she immersed me in the heat of India, the contrast of a gloomy Portsmouth that left me craving for warmer climes. I could smell the smoke from the train engines, the whoosh as it chugged down the track, and delighted in Florence’s wonder and fascination of its inner workings.
Musty’s main achievement was to create a novel that’s as its core a woman at odds with herself but also the world at large, a woman who wished to be treated as an equal to men, to train as an engineer, to work in her first love, the railway. Musty had to be admired for the way she skilfully wove all the varying themes to make Florence’s story a fascinating and compelling one, that I absolutely loved.
I would like to thank Agora for a copy of In The Mirror A Peacock Danced to read and review and for inviting My Bookish Blogspot to participate in the Blogtour.
About the author
Justine Bothwick grew up in Kent and Hampshire, and studied in London. In 2005, she moved to Italy and now teaches English in an international secondary school in Rome. She is married to a Roman architect. Together they have a flat in the city with a small balcony on which she grows her ever expanding collection of plants and watches the local birdlife.
Justine is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School’s Creative Writing MA programme and has short stories published in Fictive Dream, Virtual Zine, Confingo Magazine, and forthcoming in The Lonely Crowd, and with Nightjar Press.
In the Mirror, a Peacock Danced is her debut novel