Sunday, April 2, 2017

Leaving Everthing Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear (A Maisie Dobbs mystery)

Jacqueline Winspear describes murder victims so well through other characters you half-wish they hadn't been killed so you can "meet" the character. But then there wouldn't be a murder to solve so, in the end, this literary taunting is forgivable. 
In Leaving Everything Most Loved, the tenth book in the acclaimed Maisie Dobbs series, Winspear has outdone herself in this regard.

Leaving Everything Most Loved, like all compelling historical fiction, allows the reader to glimpse a small snippet of history that is often overlooked when major events and social shifts are viewed from across an expanse of decades. 

In this case, Winspear focuses on the experiences of Indian maids and nannies brought to England by British families returning from stints in the British Raj. It wasn't uncommon for the Indian help to be summarily dismissed when children went to boarding school or they were simply deemed unnecessary. Consequently, many young, single Indian women were left to fend for themselves in a foreign city without so much as reference or severance pay. 

Churches and charity groups set up boarding homes for these women, often demanding conversion to Christianity in exchange. Some homes would find the women work so the women could eventually earn enough for passage back to India. But every so often a woman might marry an Englishman or choose to stay in London, which contributed to a growing Indian community.

Maisie is asked to consult with Scottland Yard when a particularly striking Indian woman is shot directly between the eyes. Her body is discovered days later by a group of young boys playing near the canal. The victim's brother, who fought for Britain in World War I, correctly assumes the simmering bigotry of London's middle class towards the city's burgeoning Indian community prevented Yard investigators from being as thorough as they might have been. When the brother comes to London and appears at Scottland Yard in his British army uniform, the Yard takes him, and the case, to Maisie's door.

Winspear's ability to illustrate the social tension between the Indian women like the victim and London's middle-class through the words and actions of auxiliary characters is "hidden" research at its best. Conversations and offhand comments feel authentic to the period and no statistics or facts are laboriously inserted into the narrative to make any points. Still, one gets a very clear sense of the social mores of mid- to late-1930s London.

There are far too few glimpses into the riches of Indian culture, but enough of them to bring to mind the way Indian spices wrap around one like a warm, heavy blanket when Indian cuisine is cooked, or to think back on the beautiful, brightly-colored silks from which saris are made.

The mystery of who shot the victim is certainly central to the novel, but once again I found myself thinking Winspear has outgrown the "mystery" genre. Would I read a Maisie Dobbs installment if it wasn't a mystery? Absolutely, though unlike the past two books the mystery itself felt less shoehorned into genre conventions.

Another of Winspear's strengths as a writer lies in her ability to create convincing inner narratives and motivations for her characters, even if the characters themselves lack any gritty flaws that would make them as human as, say, a Denise Mina character. This story seemed particularly well-suited to exploring character motivation and made for enjoyable reading.

As always, Winspear's landscapes are convincing if a bit airbrushed, and although plenty of readers quickly tire of Maisie's "naval gazing," I personally enjoy her introspection. For me, Maisie's indecisiveness is a saving grace; without it, she is far too much of a Mary Sue to be interesting.

Finally, for those who read series because they adore the way characters in book series become like friends (and I certainly fall into this camp), this will be a rich and satisfying read indeed. Characters move on in a variety of ways and Maisie learns a bit more about controlling others and butting in. She also finds herself at a crossroads, or rather hesitant to move on to the path she has really already chosen.

I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to the series, however. Winspear does what back explaining is necessary, but wisely keeps the rehashing short. If you're an established fan of this series, however, enjoy -- you're in for a treat. 

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