Umi Sinha’s unforgettable debut is an intense, compelling and finely wrought epic of love and loss, of race and ethnicity, of homeland – and of belonging.
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Lila Langdon is twelve years old when she witnesses a family tragedy after her mother unveils her father’s surprise birthday present – a tragedy that ends her childhood in India and precipitates a new life in Sussex with her great-aunt Wilhelmina.
From the darkest days of the British Raj through to the aftermath of the First World War, Belonging by Umi Sinha tells the interwoven story of three generations and their struggles to understand and free themselves from a troubled history steeped in colonial violence. It is a novel of secrets that unwind through Lila’s story, through her grandmother’s letters home from India and the diaries kept by her father, Henry, as he puzzles over the enigma of his birth and his stormy marriage to the mysterious Rebecca.
Hurst Life25 July 2017
Umi Sinha’s debut novel was a labour of love that took ten years to write, the beginning of the story came to her in a dream and it’s a fantastic opening. 12 year old Lila hides to watch her father’s birthday dinner; she is desperate to see the tablecloth that her mother has embroidered as a surprise gift, but when the meal is over and the dishes are removed, the night ends in tragedy.
Lila’s mother, the enigmatic Rebecca, casts a shadow over many of the character’s lives but there is no hero or villain in the book, just damaged people navigating situations they did not choose and can’t easily escape. The story moves from the time of the British Raj to WWI as the novel gradually reveals the secrets of three generations of the same family through letters, diaries and Lila’s experiences.
With many novels which switch between characters there is often one that you are keen to get back to, but I found all of the strands equally gripping as each threw fresh light on the others. The historical details referenced in the novel are meticulously researched, from the WW1 sections which delve into the role of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion as ‘Dr Blighty’ and the experiences of the Sikh soldiers who were hospitalised there, to the dark days of the Siege of Cawnpore, but it’s as seamlessly woven in as the threads on that mysterious tablecloth.
The Tribune21 October 2016
Ever watched a puppet show in which the puppeteer makes the cloth dolls tied with strings perform complicated dance movements and manoeuvres, making one wonder how he can do it without tangling the different strings? As nimble fingers crisscross the strings deftly to create an enchanting dance, the puppets move without any jerks or awkward tripping. This is the feeling that one gets while turning the pages of this story spread across three generations, told in three different timelines and through three different characters simultaneously. Much like the seasoned puppeteer, Umi Sinha makes three stories flow so seamlessly that never once does one feel having lost the grip on any one of her characters or situations.
The timelines vary from 1857 Mutiny, to the late 19th century British India to the early 20th century England caught in the strife and chaos of the First World War. All these represent the turmoil that troubled times put people through on physical as well as personal levels. Nowhere does the story lose its high emotional charge as one moves through the lives of three characters from three different generations, each looking for an anchor, roots and his/her own true identity.
Young and naïve Cecily battling with the mysteries of India as well as new life with a man much older than her is the first dimension of the story. Her son Henry, lost in the fog surrounding his birth and a love-hate relationship with his father, is the second dimension, while his daughter Lilian alias Lila, forms the third dimension of the narrative.
These three stories move simultaneously as the author takes readers from one to the other at a breathtaking pace chapter after chapter. There are times when one actually gets breathless while trying to keep pace with the fast-moving narrative on three different tracks. You wonder what terrible sight 12-year-old Lila has seen in her father’s room and get engulfed in the grief of a child sent to live thousands of miles away in an unfamiliar setting. You are also serenaded with the starry-eyed expectations of a teenaged Cecily, who is travelling across the continents to marry a much older British army man in India. In between these two, like a solid solemn bridge is Henry, Cecily’s son and Lila’s father, an unconventional sahib of the British Raj who is carrying the burden of unanswered questions about his birth.
Though from different generations, each one of the protagonists is on a quest to find his/her roots and struggling to get a foothold in order to truly belong — whether it is to a culture or country or to a person. The strife and uncertainty of the physical world and historical events unfolding around them, be it the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny or the First World War, form a perfect backdrop to depict the inner turmoil of the characters. The beginning of course is a bit overwhelming as it takes some effort to get the family tree and relationships of different protagonists right. So jogging to and fro across chapters is a sort of warm up that you need in order to get accustomed to the pace and style of Umi, but in the end, it is worth the effort. Belonging is one of the rare books in which as a reader you are in love with all the three characters simultaneously. The narrative is like an exquisite tapestry woven with Cecily’s letters from India to her sister in England, Henry’s diaries and Lila’s story told in first person. There are plenty of secrets and layers of mystery which one keeps peeling off, like onion skin, chapter after chapter till the core of each character is unravelled ultimately. There are perfectly crafted glimpses of violence perpetrated by the natives against the British in 1857, loyalty of Indian soldiers, the insensitivity of the British army towards Indian soldiers in the First World War. The author remarkably paints the societal system where sahibs and their bibis, paedophily, incest, cheating wives and friends are juxtaposed with loyalty, honour, valour, sensitivity and true love.
Shortlisted for the Author’s Club First Novel Award 2016, Belonging, will make you return to page one after reading the last page to dive once again into the intense story by Umi to experience a different shade the second time. A must read if you love the Raj nostalgia and a good mystery book in which you can’t read the last chapter to ‘who did it’. Umi doesn’t give that that freedom — an achievement indeed. And to think that this is her debut work!View source
New Indian Express1 October 2016
From the years that preceded the great mutiny of 1857 to the unsettling times after the First World War, Umi Sinha’s debut novel Belonging is a complex, intricately embroidered narrative of lives caught in the vortex of history. Sinha’s book is a delight because it deviates from the predictable anti-colonial narrative and instead portrays the intimate lives of the colonials and not the natives. Also, the writing is both gripping and well-researched. She gets the history right.
Anthony Quinn, judging the 2016 Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award10 June 2016
Umi Sinha’s Belonging unfurls a dynastic saga through three generations of one troubled family, stretching from the Indian Rebellion to the aftermath of the Great War. The back-and-forth narrative is built on a sturdy armature of deep research, finely wrought prose and expert characterisation. Its focus on the search for love and connection in a chaotic, divided society is hugely affecting.
Other Terrain Journal26 May 2016
A breathtakingly complex book covering the intense journeyings of daughter, father and grandmother as they search back and forth, through the media of letter, diary, memoir, history and conversation, desperately trying to find each other, people they barely knew, and in the process, themselves... [Sinha's] meticulous research into every detail of the eras she covers makes for a fascinating read. [She] has achieved admirably what many don’t even attempt, with her seamless changing of voice from a young girl to a small boy and a newly-wed woman. All are transformed with time and experience and other voices are successfully introduced as their stories unfold. Sinha convinces her reader of multiple settings: glittering dinner parties and class/caste distinctions during the Raj; the extreme heat of the Indian plains and the dreary wetness of an English winter; the battleground and final days of Cawnpore and the killing mud of Ypres. But more compelling are the internal landscapes and conflicts of the central characters as their own searches reveal their places of belonging within the worlds they thought they knew. I love a book that I can’t put down. From the puzzling and shocking opening I have to read on and find out what lies behind it. Only towards the end is the rationale for all these complex struggles and secrets finally resolved.View source
Historical Novel Society3 May 2016
In this touching and lithely written debut novel, the gaps separating the generations are wide, but their shared roots in the British Raj and desire for understanding pull them back together. The form it takes is unusual for a family saga – three separate narratives, related in alternating chapters – and this works to heighten immediacy. The legacy of long-hidden mysteries lingers throughout... The answers are skillfully revealed in time, yet this is much more than a tale of family secrets. Belonging illustrates the complexity of Anglo-Indian relationships in colonial India and England, Indian soldiers’ valiant WWI service, and the pain of dislocation and unattainable love. Reading it is a deeply felt, mesmerising experience.View source
Shiny New Books14 December 2015
Not only was this novel one of the most gripping, engrossing, heart-in-mouth novels I’ve read in 2015, it wins hands-down the most beautiful cover of the year, too... If you have any interest in historical fiction, in India during the time of the Commonwealth, in the First World War, in complex family stories, or indeed in absorbing storytelling, this is the novel for you. What might have been confusing or muddled in other hands is in fact a miracle of clarity in Umi Sinha’s effortless storytelling. Of course it doesn’t hurt that she has a cracking story to tell; one that is horrific too, about the relationship between the British and the Indians over the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Arthur and Cecily will be caught up in one of the most terrible massacres in history, a string of revenge and reprisals all stemming from the way native Indians were treated. And then Lila’s story takes us into the heart of the Indian armies fighting for Britain in World War One, a perspective on this war that I had never come across before, but which urgently needs to be remembered. Running through the heart of this compelling story is a deep understanding of how the colonial experience affected all its participants. The British who grew to love India loved it as sincerely as the natives; but the strange transplantation of one culture into another created unimaginable damage, spread confusion and resentment, and struck at the roots of a whole generation’s sense of belonging. Written with lucid, flowing beauty, this was a story I could hardly drag myself away from, and I’d find myself making excuses for postponing all my other tasks while I read just a chapter more. I didn’t know much about the novel before I read it, and hard as it is to believe, this is a debut author. An outstanding first novel: brilliantly structured, exquisitely detailed, completely engrossing.View source
Harriet Devine13 December 2015
This is a big, serious, absorbing historical novel with a mystery at its heart... Umi Sinha doesn't preach, nor does she allow the important issues the novel raises to overwhelm the excitement and interest of the story. I was completely carried along by the need to know how Lila's story would end, and indeed how and why it began. I think this book should be required reading for anyone interested in India, or in colonialism in general. But it's also a brilliant and absorbing read for anyone who loves good novels.View source
Pamreader30 November 2015
Sinha’s writing is perceptive, insightful and evocative... This novel makes you think about the damage that secrets and lies can inflict on the unsuspecting and innocent. Silence is used as a mask, a shield and as a weapon depending on whether or not the protagonist feels like they don’t know where they belong, or that they are the property of someone with no control over their own lives. Every character is a fully realised human being with strengths and weaknesses, and Sinha writes each one with sensitivity and empathy as the truth of each situation is gradually unveiled. Despite the hardships, cruelty and deception, love is the overriding emotion in this novel, a deep love that comes from understanding what has gone before in the hope that what is to come will be better. Belonging covers an important period of history and is one of my favourite reads of the year.View source
TripFiction20 September 2015
An insightful story set in the second half of the nineteenth century through and beyond the First World War... Set against this explosive background, the seething discontent, colour and human frailties, the book evokes a country and its people as they transition from one epoch to another... Characters from a variety of ethnic origins and backgrounds are thrown together in this combustible storyline, interspersed with perceptive research that brings the various periods to vibrant life.View source
Jen Harvey10 September 2015
What Belonging succeeds in showing us is that our personal histories are deeply intertwined not only with the era in which we live and the events we experience, but also those experiences our families have endured and survived in the past. We are shaped as much by their history as our own. History, it seems is a collective as well as an individual experience... We are all shaped and formed by many forces – the era we live in, the people we love, the place we call home. But we are also formed by the past, the experiences of our forefathers impacting our lives in ways that we may never realise. And if we want to understand ourselves now, as individuals or even as nations, we need to know our past, we need to know the forces which shaped us and still guide the way we think about the world and how we decide the things which are important to us. For anyone looking to understand a little more about British rule in India, Belonging is a fascinating book, a book which provides us with intimate insights into an era we would do well to know better.View source
The Committed Reader2 September 2015
A fascinating and fantastic study of Britain and India through the eyes of three generations of a troubled family... It left me with a deep sense of melancholy, but also hope, and having used it to reflect upon my own sense of belonging, more at peace with myself. It is a beautiful book and firmly on my list of favourites.
Jacob Ross15 May 2015
Through three utterly convincing storylines, Umi Sinha's Belonging presents us with the beautifully achieved portraits of Cecily, a nineteen-year-old who marries a man twice her age, Cecily's son, Henry, and Henry's daughter, Lila, whose life is shadowed by the silence and mystery surrounding her father's suicide. This is a mature, measured and relentlessly unfolding novel about friendship, alienation, betrayal, loss, self-discovery and unfulfilled love. It is also about secrets: the unspoken and unspeakable stories that shape the actions and relationships of humans. The book achieves a larger, darker resonance with the layering of English ideas of race and class on India's caste system. Here, the betrayals, the silences and atrocities we discern in the relationships between characters are replicated in the wider context of colonial society. Sinha's is an important novel, told beautifully with arresting delicacy and sensitivity.
Kadija Sesay14 May 2015
I am overflowing with admiration for Umi Sinha’s Belonging (which is really about unbelonging), a beautifully crafted tragi-history. What makes this such a captivating book to read? It enriches you. The factual, yet carefully reconstructed histories of the First World War remember Indian soldiers who gave their lives and those who were betrayed, massacred, and – just as tragically – those who survived. Sinha quickly and effortlessly makes her characters come alive, capturing their distinct tones and voices as though she was recording them in their presence. She has precision timing when it comes to hooking
the reader with a moment or a half-revealed situation. You have to keep reading. She is simply one of the best storytellers I’ve come across in a very long time.
Catherine Smith12 May 2015
Combining meticulously researched historical fact with a bold, exuberant imagination, Belonging conjures flesh-and-blood characters caught up in the horrors of the Indian Cawnpore Massacres of 1857 and of the First World War. In perfectly judged, luminous prose which sings off the page like the sharpest poetry, Umi Sinha stitches together the stories of three generations with the precision, skill and artistry reminiscent of exquisite needlework. Belonging is a big-hearted book from an author who can write with luminous delicacy and unflinching, visceral immediacy.