Okay, we’re in the bookstore and we pick up a book and the cover says. “Miss Timmins’ School for Girls: A Novel.” What does that mean? Every book in the Fiction section is some kind of novel, but this one is a “Novel,” capital “N.” What are we expecting?
Well, it won’t be genre fiction. The time, place and subject matter will be less predictable than that. If we buy a Murder Mystery, we know what the topic is going to be. A Romance is going to be about love at least, and maybe sex if we’re lucky. If it’s Science Fiction or Fantasy, we want the book to take us to a place and time that is new and wonderful to us.
We expect a Novel to be a little different in some way, a little creative, especially with the form of the story. But, in the long run, we want a Novel to take us to a place in the human condition that is new and wonderful to us.
Does “Miss Timmins’ School for Girls” succeed? Well, mostly.
This story is also a Murder Mystery, but because it’s a Novel we expect it to be treated in some creative way, and it certainly is. The story skirts around the murder with changing points of view and angles of approach. We never actually experience the moment of the murder or the leadup to it. We jump past it, then go back, which I felt was rather a waste of good suspense, but this is a Novel after all, not a Murder Mystery. It would be a spoiler to let on why, but this approach is quite appropriate to the eventual outcome of the investigation.
A New and Wonderful Place and Time
The myriad social facets of India are all brought together in one school: Parsis and Hindus, Anglo Indians (who are a separate ethnic group like Canadian Metis, I was interested to discover) and British, all jammed together in the usual seething mass of emotions that writers tell us constitutes a private school for girls.
And the descriptions! This book is rather long, mostly because of the author’s loving attention to setting: physical, social, and emotional. The monsoon deserves special attention, because it is a major motif in the story.
The dialogue is another strength. It contrasts the gossiping of a clutch of elderly relatives, the chatter of the schoolgirls, the stoned babble of the hippies, the colloquial usage of Indian home life, and the stiff proclamations of “proper” school conversation.
I do not think the experiment with form was a complete success. If the author had focused the point of view more carefully and kept the timeline straight, the story could have run in a smooth flow from one emotional highpoint to the next. As it was, there was a halting, uneasy movement that did nothing to enhance our journey through Ms. Currimbhoy’s version of the human condition.
However, that is a minor complaint; the wonderful description and the empathetic revelation of a young woman’s life-changing experience make this a Novel worth reading.
If you want a story that takes you out of the common time, place, and human condition, this is for you. If you want a Murder Mystery, you’ll have to buy one.
Recommended: four stars out of five.