A meticulously researched chronicle of her parents’ fateful meeting and subsequent romance amid the horrors of WWII, Leila Sen’s debut novel blends memoir and historical fiction.
The story is initially set in 2002, a few months after Sen has scattered her parents’ ashes. Her visit to their home in San Francisco, the beloved house—filled with so much love and so many memories—sends her thoughts back in time, to when her parents were young.
Santi Pada Dutt is a young Indian surgeon who joins the Indian Medical Service in the British Indian Army early in WWII. Idealistic and a bit naive, he soon experiences the brutality of war: “Most horrifying of all were the bodies; crushed, twisted, charred… and startlingly, a few seemed to move —till you got up close… The bodies were not moving, it was the squirming maggots and the buzzing flies that infested them.”
Meanwhile, Hedeya Khayat has fled the Armenian genocide in Turkey to find sanctuary in Cairo. When Dutt fatefully meets Khayat during a stay in Egypt, and immediately falls for her, both of their lives are irrevocably changed as they struggle to survive war’s chaos and, against all odds, meet again.
Complemented by rich description throughout and photos of Dutt at various stages of his war experience, this is simultaneously a story of the insanity of war and a romance for the ages.
Unfortunately, the author focuses so much on the details of every sequence (political, cultural, etc.) that narrative momentum often suffers. Readers must be prepared to plow through long, wordy expositional passages that interrupt the story’s flow.
But the author’s lyrical writing style helps compensate for this: “The late afternoon sun streamed in through the window, light-fingered, probing the memories in the room. Memories, lingering in the shadows, crouching in the corners, floating like dust moats [sic] in the sunlight…”
Those who can persevere through the overly detailed prose, will find a moving story, lovingly told.