Fiona McIntosh and The Tea Gardens
On a recent visit to Melbourne for a medical conference, I had the pleasure of meeting best-selling Australian author Fiona McIntosh. Coincidentally I just finished reading her latest novel The Tea Gardens on my flight across the Tasman.
The Tea Gardens has particular significance for me. Like the novel's heroine, Isla Fenwick, as a young doctor I worked in India in a region of overwhelming need.
Fiona's evocative descriptions brought back that heady mixture of awe and panic as the sights, sounds and smell of India flood the senses. Even more revealing, the novel captures that strange combination of professional competence and emotional naivety that so many medical graduates experience on entering the outside world.
We meet Isla as she faces a personal dilemma on her return from India. In her own words, she recalls her defining rite of passage. Her journey begins in the grey streets of London in 1933 where her widowed father engineers a meeting with an old flame, the aptly named Jovian Manderville. But Isla made a promise to strike back at the tropical disease that took her mother's life.
We live and breathe Isla's journey to Calcutta and share her joy and despair as she sets up a midwifery clinic. Her attempt to save a girl whose pregnancy violates the caste system ends in tragedy and endangers the life of a brilliant but maverick colleague, Professor Saxon Vickery. Facing personal and professional ruin, Isla follows Vickery to the foothills of the Himalayas, where she finds love, forgiveness and guilt in a resolution that questions all that she holds dear.
Thankfully, my time in India was much less dramatic than Dr Fenwick's but proved none the less life-changing.
Fiona regaled a delighted audience at the Altona Library with tales of her trip to India to research The Tea Gardens. Her anecdotes ranged from the ingenious to the outrageous, seducing a member to gain entry to a gentleman's club in Calcutta. Fiona told us that she does not write about anywhere that she has not experienced first hand. It shows in her work. When you finish The Tea Gardens you too have travelled from the grime of Britain to the squalor of Calcutta and the ethereal beauty of the Himalayas.
I have to admit to a tinge of jealousy for Fiona's lifestyle. I'll have to set my next story further afield.