Publisher: Harper Collins (Harper Paperback)
Pub date: 21 June 2011
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Charu Apte, a young innocent girl, fresh out of college, starts teaching at Miss Timmins’ School for Girls (a boarding school). 20 years after the British have left India, this school is still run like an outpost of the Empire. By day, Charu navigates the politics of the teachers and students while teaching Shakespeare to the girls of class 9 and 10. But she is drawn to the rebellious and glamourous Moira Prince – a pot-smoking teacher who seems to have many secrets.
One monsoon night, a teacher is found murdered, and the strict school atmosphere undergoes a change. Charu finds herself in the middle of this murder investigation while coming to terms with the changes in her own life and the choices that she needs to make.
Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is a murder mystery and so much more. It is set in India in the early 1970s – a time of hippie experimentation with drugs, music and sex.
Charu Apte comes from a traditional Brahmin home and has lived a sheltered existence. Exposed to this new world of sexual freedom and a new culture, she takes to it, and ends up learning more about herself than she ever expected.
Told in first person by Charu, this is her story of overcoming her own perceptions of herself. All her life, the mark on her face has ruled her and she is terribly self-conscious about it. There is also a cloud hanging over her family – a scandal that caused her father to give up a promising naval career and move to Indore.
After the murder of the teacher, the second part of the story is told by one of Charu’s students, 15-year old Nandita. Nandita and her friends decide to play detective in an attempt to find out what really happened that night and who had the motive to kill the teacher. I actually found this part of the book a little jarring and the mood of the book changed. I was very glad when Charu took up the thread of narration again.
Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is a brilliantly written story that transcends the expectations of the genre. The young Charu is an easy character to love. It was heartwarming to see her bloom from a self-conscious young provincial girl to someone who is confident and accepts herself. In spite of her sheltered life so far, she is open to new experiences and accepts people for who they are without judgement. The one she is hardest on is herself and through the course of the story, she learns to let go of her inhibitions and the limits she places on herself.
Not being a murder mystery in the traditional sense, the crime itself takes a back seat and cultural and social issues like the hippie movement, class and caste bias, dynamics of Indian family life and life in a girls boarding school are examined. And because of it, this is a story to be savoured slowly and enjoyed for its lyrical beauty and in-depth character development.
Highly recommended. Fans of literary fiction should definitely get their hands on Miss Timmins’ School for Girls.
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