Title: Miss Timmins’ School for Girls
Author: Nayana Currimbhoy
Release Date: June 21, 2011
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
Genre: Multicultural Fiction, Mystery
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Charulata Apte is the newest teacher at Miss Timmins’ School for Girls in Panchgani, a remote hill station in India. Shy, uncertain, and completely sheltered, Charu has always felt insecure because of the blot – a red birthmark that mars her face and has ruined her marriage prospects. Charu slowly begins to settle in at Miss Timmins and becomes friends with Moira Prince, a fellow teacher who introduces Charu to the many pleasures of life. As Charu spends more time with Moira, she begins to open up and accept herself as she is. But when Moira is found dead at the bottom of a cliff, Charu is forced to reevaluate her perceptions as she becomes determined to find out what happened to her friend.
Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is a book that wears many different hats. It’s a murder mystery and a portrait of India in the 1970’s, which was dealing with the same hippie, pot-smoking craze that the United States was. It’s a look inside a girl’s boarding school and a commentary on the caste/class/religious difference that plague India to this day. But most of all, it’s the coming of age story of Charulata Apte.
Charu captured my heart from the very first page of this novel. Just twenty years old, Charu is leaving home for the first time, and isn’t sure of herself or anything around her. All she does know is that she is ugly. Her perception of herself is centered around the blot and she can’t see past it, so she assumes that no one around her can either. When Moira, the glamorous rebel, seeks her out, Charu is overwhelmed by her attentions. Moira leads Charu into a life she never thought possible, one with love and happiness, where people see her for what she is, rather than the marks on her body.
But Charu is never completely certain of herself, even with Moira’s support. Her self-doubt threatens to overwhelm her, and it’s only after Moira’s death that Charu begins to see the strength within her. I absolutely loved this coming-of-age, the tension between Charu’s traditional, Brahmin upbringing and her desire to find love, from whomever is offering it. After Moira’s death, Charu begins to see herself in an entirely new light. Through her investigations, she finds a sense of certainty that she wasn’t sure she had.
It was Charu’s openness that I loved, her willingness to accept love in whatever form it took. Even now, the subject of homosexuality in India is a difficult one. I appreciated how much Charu learned about herself through her relationship with Moira. It gave her a place in the world, and a sense of belonging; it wasn’t about being with a woman or with a man, just about love.
The murder mystery in Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is very interesting, but this isn’t the type of novel to keep the reader on tenterhooks as they await the climax of the book. Instead, the plot unfolds slowly and sensuously as Charu comes into her own. This is a character-driven novel, rather than one driven forward by plot, and if you come into it expecting an on-the-edge-of-your-seat murder mystery, you may be disappointed. Instead, if you hope for a character driven book with a mystery twist (as I did), you’ll really enjoy and appreciate it.
I can’t say enough great things about Miss Timmins’ School for Girls. Currimbhoy is a talented author, and has accomplished a great feat with her first novel. The characters are memorable, and she really brings India to life with her prose. I really enjoyed this book; I read it slowly, savoring it, rather than rushing through it, and that was the perfect way to experience it. It was a beautiful novel, and I know that Miss Charulata Apte will stay with me for a very long time, as she is a woman close to my heart.