Review: Cawnpore by Tom Williams

After his time in Borneo with James Brooke, John Williamson travels to India. Working for the East India Company in Cawnpore, he struggles to fit in: a gay man in a straight society; a farm labourer’s son in a world of gentleman’s clubs and refined dinner parties; a European adrift in an alien land. But he finds he is good at his job, overseeing a colonial administration that has been running the country for a hundred years. He falls in love with the country and, in particular, with a young nobleman in the court of the local lord.

Successful at work and happy with his lover, he thinks he can finally meet life on his own terms. Then Indian troops rise in mutiny and the country is plunged into war. With the British Raj teetering on the edge of destruction and Cawnpore a byword for horror across the Empire, Williamson has to choose whose side he is really on.

In this sequel to The White Rajah, the fictional Williamson is caught up in real historical events which provide a thrilling background to his own story. Williamson meets some of the key figures at a crucial point in British history and witnesses events which shocked the world and shaped the future of British India.

Paper and ebook – 288 pages

Review by Michael Joseph

Cawnpore picks up more or less where the author’s previous work, The White Rajah, left off. Like the first book, this one takes the form of a memoir of the fictional John Williamson. Williamson has parted company with his employer and lover James Brooke after the inquiry into the battles that firmly established Brooke as the “White Rajah”. While Williamson is still in love with Brooke, the ghosts of all the people killed in Brooke’s name has driven a firm wedge between them.

With a generous severance from Brooke, Williamson could easily return to England and a quiet life, but he’s not quite ready to settle down and, intrigued by Brooke’s own stories of India, he decides to stop there before going back to Britain. In Calcutta, he applies to work for the East India Company and is surprised to find he is readily accepted and assigned the post of Deputy Collector in Cawnpore. While Brooke did not have a very high opinion of “the Company”, they have certainly heard of his exploits in Sarawak, and have a high opinion of him, and by extension, Williamson.

Although taken aback by his ready acceptance and the relatively high position granted him, Williamson soon finds that the work isn’t all that different than what he did in Sarawak. It suits him well, and although he is very much a square peg in a round hole, he gets along well with most people. One day his boss notes that Williamson is working just a little too hard, and takes him out to meet the Nana Sahib in his palatial home outside of Cawnpore. There Williamson meets Mungo, a young cousin of the Nana Sahib. There’s an instant mutual attraction between the two, and they soon become lovers.

While Williamson professes that Brooke is still the true love of his life, he is clearly deeply infatuated with the much younger Mungo. Like Brooke before him, Mungo becomes Williamson’s mentor, teacher and guide through the mysteries of Indian culture. With Mungo’s help, Williamson learns the language and soon with a little disguise can pass for a local. Everything seems to be going great, until rumors of discontent and outright mutiny begin to circulate throughout the colony.

Cawnpore is, at its heart, the story of the Indian mutiny of 1857, and in particular the massacre at Cawnpore, which is an episode of history I assume most British readers are familiar with. Williamson’s ability to pass for an Indian allows him to hide in plain sight among the rebels and observe both sides of the siege. Although Williamson’s escapades themselves seem improbable, he does relate the events of the siege and massacre in vivid, even alarming, detail that appears to be historically accurate.

Williamson of course survives the massacre and even provides information that helps the British rout Nana Sahib’s forces and re-take Cawnpore. But as the full extent of the tragedy becomes clear, he starts to fear for his own safety, as well as Mungo’s, in the face of the British fury. They flee to the countryside to wait hopefully for tempers to cool, and this is where the full tragedy of the story unfolds.

Cawnpore is, on the whole, a well-written adventure tale. In some ways, I think the author has improved from the first book. One of the issues I had with The White Rajah was the extremely timid way in which the relationship between Brooke and Williamson was described. It was clear that the two men were lovers, but for all the reader was given, it could have been a rather platonic relationship. In Cawnpore it’s much more clear that Williamson and Mungo have a very physical relationship. We’re not given detailed descriptions of what they get up to, but it’s still clear the two men share a physical bond as well as a deep friendship.

However, that said, the sexual relationship between Williamson and Mungo is not really at the center of the story. It doesn’t provide any of the key dramatic elements or move the story along. The friendship between the two is certainly key to Williamson’s ability to observe both sides of the mutiny and survive the massacre, but you could easily remove the gay element from the story and still have essentially the same tale. Cawnpore is, in many ways, an adventure tale where the main character happens to be gay, rather than a ‘gay’ historical novel.

So, where does that leave us? If you’re looking for a gay romance, you almost certainly won’t like this book, especially given the ending which is anything but happily-ever-after. Cawnpore will appeal more to someone looking for action and adventure tales of war. While I wouldn’t compare the writing of the two, this book is more in the vein of Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven than most contemporary gay historical books. The writing is competent and sometimes vivid when describing scenes of battle, but it gets a little flat when it comes to the people and personal relationships. Once the mutiny begins, the scenes between Williamson and Mungo are quite short and even rushed when compared with the colorful descriptions of time spent with the Indian rebels, night raids or calvary charges.

Stories of battle and war aren’t exactly my cup of tea. I have, nonetheless, read quite a few of them. The ones I enjoy are carried along by the relationship between the main characters, which typically develops and changes over the course of the book, whether it’s the tried and true enemies-that-become-friends theme or something more unusual. This is the main failing of Cawnpore, for me. The relationship between Williamson and Mungo springs forth almost fully formed in an early chapter, and remains relatively unchanged for the rest of the book. Yes, there are arguments and disagreements, but they’re little more than lover’s spats.

Given the meticulous research and vivid descriptions of the mutiny, Cawnpore deserves three stars. I was tempted to give it more, but the flatness of the characters and lack of depth to the key relationship holds this book back.

Tom Williams has a blog, The White Rajah

Available from JMS Books | Amazon UK | Amazon USA

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