This contemporary thriller, set in India and London, is intriguing and thought provoking. Cast No Shadow maintains a decent pace and is an engaging read, it doesn’t take long to get onside with the main characters. The novel is lightly written, perhaps a little surprisingly as it deal with some disturbing issues, nevertheless the darkness of the themes comes through in the telling. Newman is very good on setting and the passages set in India are particularly evocative. Especially when she takes us into the closed off world of the Hijra and we are introduced to a group of marginalised people who don’t normally receive any attention in Western fiction. This is an easy novel to warm to.
The story opens in India with a young girl running through a forest, she’s tired, hungry and scared, we get the sense her life depends on making it out of the trees and avoiding getting caught. Mahina, who loves her, she has no mother, sent her on her way, a few days ago. The girl doesn’t even know why she was in such danger but she knows she has to find somewhere to blend into the crowd, to hide in plain sight.
London: Samantha is a junior reporter, twenty-six years old, a bit frustrated with the pace and pattern of her life. Her last performance evaluation with Paul didn’t go well; she could do better, be less erratic, be on time. Samantha didn’t stick up for herself. Like any young journalist she is waiting for that ‘big’ story to come along. Sometimes it’s the apparently insignificant details that can lead to a story, she reads the things that cross her desk hopefully. She thinks everyone in the office is against her, particularly posh twit Gregory Johnson (rich, Oxford educated, blah, blah). Making friends doesn’t seem to be her thing. For a couple of days she makes a point of coming into the office early.
Then at the bottom of a web page is a brief squib that sounds interesting – ‘Hotelier Exposed’. The police in Amritsar, Punjab, were forced to release a businessman held on a charge of rape when it was exposed that Amit Joshi was, in fact, a woman and therefore could not have committed the crime. Samantha’s curiosity is aroused, what is behind this unusual story? It’s rare but not illegal for a woman to run a business in India. Her research only gets her as far as connecting a runaway girl to the now disappeared hotelier but no further.
All thorough a weekend at the family home with her mother and sister, her father left many years ago, Samantha can’t stop thinking about the story. On the Monday she approaches the office grump, wise old veteran owl, Adrian Miller. He points her to Gregory, whose brother works in the High Commission in New Delhi. Samantha thinks there’s little chance that Gregory will help her but she tries anyway. It’s clear to readers that Gregory is carrying a bit of a torch for Samantha and he’s only too glad to help. When his brother Simon investigates in India he is warned off, conclusion: there must be something to this story, maybe something big has been going on. Before Gregory and Samantha can digest what Simon has said he is found dead in his apartment in Chahakyapuri, an apparent OD. Gregory just doesn’t believe it, Simon was not an addict, it has to be murder. Gregory goes to India to collect his brother’s body and do a little sniffing around. There’s still not enough to get Paul to authorise an investigation 4,000 miles from home but Samantha is itching to get out there and join Gregory. In India no one wants to talk to Gregory about his brother, maybe Simon’s death is related to his work and not the Amit Joshi story but something is going on. When Gregory goes missing Adrian can’t hold Samantha back, she heads to India. Adrian knows just how dangerous things could get out there but he thinks he knows someone who might be able to help look after Samantha. In her quest for the truth Samantha is putting her life in on the line.
Given the dark themes Cast No Shadow is actually a very accessible read, nothing explicit, it’s the themes themselves that are disturbing. Forced prostitution, sex trafficking, caste and gender identity, Newman is highlighting issues the West rarely pays much attention to. The clash of culture, particularly the bumbling detective work of Gregory and then Samantha in India, reveal how little they understand to the environment they find themselves in. Newman’s story highlights widespread abuse and discrimination in Indian society and Western ignorance of it. So there’s plenty to think about here.
Samantha is an interesting protagonist, naive and brave by turns, intelligent but with a chip on her shoulder that colours her thinking. She is way out of her depth most of the time. I don’t know if Newman has it in mind to bring Samantha back for another investigation but with the right story that would be an interesting idea.
Paul Burke 3/3
Cast No Shadow by Julie Newman
Urbane Publications 9781912666508 pbk Sep 2019