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A Singular Hostage: Thalassa Ali
July 13, 2002


In my youth, as old father Willam would have said, I consumed secretly in great quantities historical fiction. Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, Victoria Holt and even Georgette Heyer. When my hi-brow friends mocked me for such plebeian tastes, my excuse was that it made history more palatable. That it also fed my teenage appetite for romance and descriptions of ball gowns and such sundries, I kept quiet about. But now that I am perfectly sure that I need no such justifications, I read historical fiction with pleasure. And it was with delight that I began A Singular Hostage by Thalassa Ali.

Set in India in 1838, the novel is built around the signing of a treaty between the British and Maharajah Ranjit Singh which resulted in Lord Auckland sending his armies to Kabul on a military adventure later known as the First Afghan war. Inlaid into this is the story of Mariana Givens, an English girl sent to India to find a good prospect . Namely a husband. Mariana Givens does not find an English husband. Instead she masters 'Indian languages'[which at various times is referred to as Punjabi or Urdu!]; discovers soothsayers and vipers, elephants and dancing girls, child snatchers and eunuchs and a visionary mystic Shaikh Waliullah; spends a couple of days in a harem; falls in love with an eighteen-month-old baby Saboor [who is Shaikh Waliullah 's grandson] and finally the baby's father - 'His mouth was harder than Fitzgerald's '-.She is entrusted with the great task of rescuing the baby Saboor who is being held hostage by Maharajah Ranjit Singh and ultimately with raising the baby…. Meanwhile Lord Auckland, his spinster sisters and a whole regiment of suitable and single British soldiers flit in and out of Marian Givens life and the pages of the book.

Despite the excessive descriptions of the durbar and the regiment and characters that veer towards caricatures, Thalassa Ali manages to keep the plot evenly paced and alive. Where she faults is in the introduction of the supernatural - the mysticism more baffling than mystic. All of which is acceptable in a historical novel because it has room for everything from tartan gowns to shamans to military exercises to the cleft on the hero's chin. But what I found hard to stomach was the depiction of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. I do not claim any authority on the subject and what I know of the Lion of Punjab is restricted to what I studied at school. Yet it is hard to reconcile that with Thalassa Ali's depiction of him as a capricious old man clinging to talismans[human and otherwise[ to ward off decrepitude and death.

A Singular Hostage is a good read. Despite its size, you keep at it, wanting to know what next. But to treat the book as anything else would be singularly foolish. Particularly if you are trying to read up on Indian history of that period. Suspended disbelief is a state of mind suggested when viewing certain advertising tv commercials. I would recommend the same for A Singular Hostage. Suspend disbelief and enjoy!

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