David J. Davidar, Author . HarperCollins $26.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-06-621254-8

Thoroughly engrossing in its take on the recent history of the Indian subcontinent, Davidar's rich debut follows three generations of a wealthy, non-Brahmin Christian family as they struggle to preserve tradition and rise to the challenge of change. The Dorai family's livelihood comes from their groves of mango trees bearing a rare variety of the succulent fruit. In 1899, patriarch Solomon Dorai, thalaivar (headman) of the village of Chevathar, in Kerala, faces a threat to his leadership when caste and tribal acrimony explode into violence. Later, one of Solomon's sons becomes involved in the Gandhi-led struggle to gain independence from Britain. The other son grows rich on a patent medicine to lighten dark skin, and eventually revitalizes his family's presence in Chevathar by building a mansion he calls the house of blue mangoes. Solomon's grandchildren go through WWII and the twilight of the Raj. This could be the stuff of potboilers, but Davidar writes with an ironic, sympathetic appreciation of the religious and historical forces binding the Indian people. His understanding of the psychological limitations and moral complexities of his characters in a country ruled by occupying powers distinguishes his narrative. The characters' lives change as the social injustice of the caste system slowly wanes, while the class distinctions between "pure" Indian and mixed-blood Anglo-Indians grow more tenacious. Although Davidar's prose often achieves lyrical beauty, his attempt to engage the reader in such cultural embroidery as how to brew a perfect cup of tea sometimes results in slow passages and didactic asides. Yet while it lacks the visceral bite of Mistry's A Fine Balance or Sharma's An Obedient Father, the novel offers a sweeping and generous view of India's fractured history. Agent, Nicole Aragi. 15-city NPR campaign; 5-city author tour. (Mar. 10)

FYI: As publisher of Penguin Books India, Davidar has issued work by Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and Rohinton Mistry. He wrote this book to "capture... memories that I have always cherished."

Reviewed on: 12/03/2001
Release date: 03/01/2002
The Best Books, Emailed Every Week
Tip Sheet!