When three young women and a troubled boy travel with the British “Fishing Fleet” on the Kaiser-l-Hind in 1928, they all harbor expectations of their eventual arrival in Bombay, India. Viva Holoway is a chaperone for Rose Wetherby, soon to be married, and her bridesmaid, Victoria Sowerby (Tor).
The odd member of the group is sixteen-year-old Guy Glover, meant to rendezvous with his parents in India after being expelled from boarding school in England. Although she is only twenty-five, Viva has passed for twenty-eight, her expertise as a guardian of necessity fabricated. Viva has not been to India since her childhood, when both parents and a sister perished, Viva haunted by vague memories and a need for closure.
By 1928, the British government is suffering adverse reactions to years of occupation, the spoiled Brits enjoying luxuries they could never have afforded on home soil. The result is a class of socialite wives and their husbands who live like royalty and treat their native servants as children.
Dissent is rumbling on the horizon, the Indian people embracing the teachings of Gandhi, a restlessness spreading over the country that will ultimately result in the end of the Occupation. But political concerns are far from the minds of these young female travelers. Gregson focuses primarily on the personal issues faced by Viva, Rose, Tor, and the unhappy Guy, who remains sullen and uncommunicative throughout the voyage.
Gregson shepherds her characters through the early days of their otherworldly voyage, before reality catches up and each will face difficult choices in a socially constricted society where a woman without a man is a failure: Rose, traveling toward marriage with a man she hardly knows, her innocence a burden; Tor, desperate to find a match and avoid being sent home as “a returned empty”; Guy, raging, drinking himself into a stupor as India draws nearer.
Viva, their putative caretaker, hoards her small salary, knowing she must find employment to remain in India and recover the few belongings her parents left with a friend in Simla. Viva’s memories are unclear, the judgments of a lifetime wrapped in a few fleeting impressions that may be false. Hoping to become an independent writer, Viva shields herself behind responsibilities, turning away from anyone and anything that threatens her fragile emotional security.
While Indian politics are incidental in East of the Sun, the author manages to weave important events into the lives of her protagonists, capturing the essence of the culture, the arrogance of the Brits, and the impossible expectations of three young women in an unfamiliar environment. All will be changed in this place, some more profoundly than others.
Guy Glover is the poison in this paradise, vaguely threatening as his rebellious activities escalate. But even this exotic locale cannot protect these travelers from the seriousness of their decisions. The dramas play out, innocence lost and hope rekindled in a lush landscape of luxury and extreme poverty, the infinitely unpredictable territory of India on the verge of change.