Under the Jeweled Sky

Under the Jeweled Sky

by Alison McQueen


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"Beautiful and brave and bittersweet—a moving story of how love in all its forms binds us together and endures, in spite of everything."—Susanna Kearsley, New York Times bestselling author of The Firebird and The Winter Sea

A breathtaking story of forbidden love and devastating consequences...

The moment Sophie steps onto India's burning soil, she realizes her return was inevitable. But this is not the India she fell in love with ten years before in a maharaja's palace. This is not the India that ripped her heart out as Partition tore the country in two. That India, a place of tigers, scorpions, and shimmering beauty, is long gone.

Drawing on her own family's heritage, acclaimed novelist Alison McQueen beautifully portrays the heart of a woman who must confront her past in order to fight for her future. Under the Jeweled Sky deftly explores the loss of innocence, the urgent connection in our stars, and how we'll go to find our hearts.

"Bursting with the evocative glow of long-forgotten India...lures you into a beautiful story of scandal, hope, and the kind of love that marks us forever."—Kathleen Grissom, New York Times bestselling author of The Kitchen House

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781402288760
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 01/21/2014
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Born in the sixties to an Indian mother and an English jazz musician father, Alison McQueen grew up in London and worked in advertising for twenty years before retiring to write full time. She lives in a quiet English village with her husband and two daughters.

Read an Excerpt

A wooden trellis, heavy with summer jasmine, lined the low doorway of Ranmore, a sunken cottage dating back to the English Civil War. Sophie pinched off a tiny flower head, bruising the petals in her fingers, and brought her hand to her nose, taking in the sweetness. She looked at the knocker, a cold brass ring hanging loosely from a lion's mouth, and remembered how she had tried to polish it once years ago with wads of cotton soaked pungent with Brasso. It hadn't done any good at all, dulling the dark patina without resurrecting its shine, and the polish had dried into the tiny crevices which she had then scrubbed at for hours with an old toothbrush. A whole afternoon wasted, but occupied.

Her hand reached up, two sharp raps clattering out of the lion's mouth into the empty street. Movement came from inside. The door opened, and Sophie's heart caught in her chest.

"Hello, Mother," she said.

Sophie steadied herself, remembering to breathe, shaken by the sight of her.

The initial shadow of stunned shock on her mother's pale, bloated face passed quickly. She stood, rooted to the spot, and declined to smile.

"It's been a long time," Sophie said.

Her mother looked her up and down, eyes raking over her. "I always knew you'd be back."

The two women stared at each other. Veronica Schofield's figure had broadened appallingly over the last decade, her hips a good deal heavier than any woman should carry, her waist a thick bulge of disinterest beneath the floral-print house dress that had seen better days. She had cut her hair off too, the neat bun she used to wear now replaced with a short, stiff permanent wave, run through with a great deal of gray, rinsed an unnatural shade of blue.

"I'll understand if you would prefer that I left," Sophie said. Her mother looked at her impassively.

"No. I won't do that." She stood aside, one hand on the door, and allowed her daughter to pass.

Inside, the cottage unfurled its dim cloak of claustrophobia, the same oppressive dark furniture pressed into the cramped corners, the same cold flagstones that had felt generations of footsteps come and go. Sophie followed her mother into the kitchen, the air tainted by last night's supper, or today's lunch perhaps, a faintly stale aroma that might have been boiled cabbage or thick, salty gravy. The crucifix above the doorway had slipped partially from its nail and hung at an awkward angle, as though about to fall.

"Where's Granny?" Sophie asked.

"Dead," her mother said, turning her back on her. "Seven years ago."

"Oh." Sophie shifted. "I'm sorry to hear that."

Her mother smiled thinly, lifting the heavy lid from the hotplate on the wood-fired range, sliding the kettle on to it. "Are you indeed?"

Sophie sat at the table, the low ceiling bearing down on her. "What happened?"

"She died," her mother said flatly. "That's what happens when old people have their lives torn to pieces. At least I was here to care for her. Thank God she had a daughter she could rely upon." Veronica Schofield busied herself, warming the teapot, setting out cups, and making much ceremony of unnecessary quarter plates and a fussy arrangement of plain arrowroot biscuits. "Still, that's all done with now. We won't dwell on it."

"You might have let us know," Sophie said.

"Whatever for? It's not as though you would have come to the funeral, is it?"

"That's not what I meant."

"And how was I supposed to know where you were anyway?"

"You've always known where we were."

"Of course I haven't."

"The letters from your solicitor never had any trouble finding us."

"That was different," her mother said, turning her back on her daughter again, watching the kettle boil. "There were matters to be settled."

"And once they were settled? What then? I never heard a word from you."

A silence fell over the kitchen, Sophie feeling an unexpected tug of sadness at the loss of a grandmother she had never felt quite belonged to her. Granny Gasson had been a distant woman, her husband's name etched into the village memorial where she would lay flowers on his birthday each year in the absence of a grave. Only once did she come to visit them at their house in Islington where Sophie had grown up, saying that she couldn't abide the journey or London's filth. Nor did she invite them to Ranmore until the war forced her hand. Sophie had but one vague memory of that first meeting with her grandmother, a fleeting childhood moment that couldn't have lasted more than two hours, involving a homemade cake served silently while she sat awkwardly and tried not to fidget. Then the war came, and before Sophie knew it, her father had been whisked away from them along with every other able-bodied man in the street, and she and her mother had been ordered to get out of London. They had thrown dust sheets over the furniture before boarding a train at Paddington and moving into the cottage with Granny. They would be safe in the depths of Wiltshire. There was nothing there to bomb.

Sophie's grandmother had turned out to be pleasant enough, although she clearly preferred solitude and generally kept her affections to herself. Her mere presence was all that Sophie had needed, the silent witness with whom she could sit when her mother's temper frayed. And now she was dead. Sophie looked around the sunless kitchen and sighed to herself, thinking of her grandmother having gone to her grave after hearing heaven only knows what about her only grandchild. It left her heart heavy, and she felt ashamed. All the way here on the train this morning, she had assumed that Granny would still be around, a white-haired old lady sitting in the garden perhaps, on a comfortable wicker chair with a knitted blanket across her knees. Sophie hoped that her passing had come to her without pain or suffering, returning her to the husband she had missed so much.

"That's the way you wanted it, dear." Veronica Schofield spooned a short measure of loose leaves into the pot and took the kettle from the stove, wrapping the handle with a thick cloth. "When I left India, it was perfectly clear to me that you would choose to stay with your father, so I thought it best to leave you both to it." Boiling water steamed from the spout. "I was made quite ill with it all and I didn't have the energy to argue with either of you."

• • •

Veronica Schofield stole a glance at her daughter's reflection in the small mirror set into the dresser. She'd always known Sophie would come back eventually, tail between her legs, and had spent many an evening staring hypnotically into the blackened window of the small wood-burner in the tiny sitting room, wondering what she would say when that day finally came, rehearsing her responses, turning each one over in her head. Children know nothing of the suffering that is born of raising them. They run around oblivious, sucking every ounce of life from their mother without a single care for the destruction they wreak. It was a thankless task, yet she had done her best and she would not be made to feel one iota of remorse for the actions she had taken. She had given of herself quite enough, to no avail, raising her child in the fear of God, for all the good it had done her.

Mrs. Schofield stirred the leaves and lidded the pot, then hung the cloth over the range, glancing at her daughter as she did so. Sophie seemed respectable enough, she supposed, and she had kept her figure by the looks of it. No wedding ring, she noticed. But that was to be expected after what had happened. As much as it had served as a just punishment, Mrs. Schofield couldn't help but feel a little sorry for her daughter, for the mess she had gone and made of her life. She would be twenty-eight now, which was almost thirty, and everybody knew that thirty was too old for any family-minded man to settle upon. She turned from the dresser's reflection and approached the table.

"I suppose you've come all this way to blame me for your woes, expecting me to pick up the pieces." Depositing the cosied teapot on the table, she sat solidly on a chair, pouring for them both.

"Not at all," Sophie said. She felt tired suddenly, drained, as though someone had siphoned her blood. The sharpness of her mother's voice. It brought it all back.

"And you needn't bother to offer me your apologies either," her mother said. "What's done is done and there's no point in raking over old coals."

"That's not what I came here for."

"Well it certainly took you long enough, didn't it?"

"Sorry," Sophie said.

"Never mind. I suppose it's all water under the bridge."

"Yes. I suppose it is."

"No husband, I see." Her mother slid an upward glance toward Sophie's left hand.


A long minute passed, cups filled, too hot to drink.

"I haven't any cake to offer you. I don't bother with baking any more. There doesn't seem to be much point now that I'm on my own." She paused for a moment, as if waiting for Sophie to commiserate with her. "I suppose I could pop along to the baker's if you'd like something."

"No, thank you."

"Watching your figure, I expect." She cast Sophie a short smile. "You're looking well enough, although I have to say that lipstick is rather severe." Sophie found herself pressing her lips together, as if to minimize their offense. "Marriage isn't for everyone, of course. I might have stayed unmarried myself had I known what would be expected of me."

Sophie looked at her mother wearily.

"Was it really so terrible?"

"I always did my best for you, and for your father." Veronica sat with her tea, cup hovering before her mouth. "Nobody could have blamed me for leaving. I'd rather have died than stay in that godforsaken place."

Sophie sighed inwardly. This was exactly what she had wanted to avoid. Or perhaps it was precisely what she had needed to test, to see if it had been her imagination, the misery her mother broadcast like seed to the wind. It had seemed like the right thing to do yesterday, as she sat with her monumental decision, that she should finally make the journey she had put off for so long and reconcile with her mother, that she should clear the air and tell her of her news in the hope of encouraging a new beginning. Surely they could salvage something from the wreckage of their relationship? She knew how difficult it had all been, but in spite of everything, she had missed her. She had missed having a mother.

"I always knew it would come to no good." Mrs. Schofield spoke into her teacup. "After everything I did for him, all those years of sacrifice thrown back in my face."

"That's unfair."

"Unfair? I'll tell you what's unfair." The cup clattered to its saucer. "It's unfair to have to go through the humiliation of divorcing an adulterous man after taking solemn vows in the presence of God! He never should have asked it of me."

"He wasn't adulterous."

"Oh yes he was, and everybody knows it."

"You were never happy together. I don't know why you married him in the first place."

"Happy?" She smiled coldly. "Happiness has nothing to do with it, my dear. I did my duty, to you, to your father, and to my mother, and what thanks did I ever get?"

A gulf of silence opened up between them again. Sophie stared at the table, scrubbed clean with a heavy brush as it had always been, its dry wooden surface yearning for a lick of linseed oil and a soft cloth.

The divorce had ruined her father. Against everyone's advice, he had insisted they bring the whole sorry business to a close, offering to grant his estranged wife anything she wanted in settlement, just to get it over with quickly. At first, her mother had refused to even consider it, reaching conveniently to her religious beliefs while Sophie's father dug deeper and deeper, signing everything away from a distance of seven thousand miles. When there was nothing left for him to give, Veronica capitulated, and he provided her with irrefutable evidence for a petition by admitting to a fictitious adulterous affair. She would not lose face, he promised her, and she could tell people whatever she wanted. It had seemed to him the most honorable solution, to create one final act of deception that would end it all with as little fallout as possible. He hadn't cared what it cost him, only that he be free of her, released from the specter of misery that had been his constant companion for twenty years. Sophie was not supposed to have known about any of it, yet she had seen the lawyer's letters while tidying her father's study, his chaotic approach to paperwork far too haphazard to keep secrets safe for long. Her heart had bled for him as he signed away all that was his and told her not to worry.

"Let's not argue," Sophie said.

"No. Let's not." Her mother pushed her teacup away. "There's no point in crying over spilt milk, and I won't turn you away now that you've finally come back, although I expect plenty of mothers would. You can have your old room. I keep the sewing machine in there nowadays, but you can move it to the little bedroom if you want to." She got up from the table and went to the sink. "But I won't have you idling around. They're looking for seasonal workers up at Hawthorn Farm. There's a notice about it in the post office window. Mrs. Milner will be bound to have something to tide you over until you find your feet."


"I suppose I shall have to think of something to say to the neighbors now that you've turned up out of the blue, and don't expect everyone to take to you straight away either." She kept her eyes fixed on the sink, rinsing out a milk bottle already clean, setting it on the drainer. "They know very well the mill I've been put through, being left high and dry. It's taken years for me to restore my dignity. People were very sympathetic, but the idea of a woman being divorced made some of them very uncomfortable indeed. It was months before I could show my face in church."

"Mother," Sophie said. "I came here to tell you something."

"I should have thought about it before. Where else were you going to end up? There was a time when I wouldn't even have answered the door to you. Nobody knows the ins and outs of what happened, and I won't have it mentioned either. I've had quite enough of people gossiping behind my back."

Sophie watched her mother as she fussed with the tea towel and knew that there was no point in continuing. Nothing had changed; nothing at all. The intervening years had lent her mother only a headful of gray hair and a calcified perspective. The same feelings of dread pulled Sophie down like a lead weight, the air sucked from the room.

• • •

Outside, the rain had begun. Not like the fat, warm droplets that spattered a deafening percussion against tropical rooftops under an Indian monsoon, but the persistent drone of a half-hearted English drizzle tap-tapping against the window panes. Her mother saw the taxi draw up outside and peered out of the window, holding back the lace curtain.

"Hello?" she said. "What on earth is that doing there?"

Sophie rose quietly from the table and picked up her handbag. Her mother turned quickly toward her. For a moment she stood frozen, silent, and looked at her daughter strangely, as though confused. Briefly, Sophie thought that she saw something pass across her mother's face, something that seemed almost like panic.


Sophie faced her mother. There were so many things she had come to say. She could feel them rising out of her chest now, the words all but forming on her lips, yet only two came out, exhaled softly, without expression.

"Good-bye, Mother."

Sophie walked out of the door, not bothering to close it behind her, not once glancing over her shoulder as her mother called her name.

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Under the Jeweled Sky 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
new-hampshire-reader More than 1 year ago
I enjoy reading books about India, so I was drawn to this story. It was a great book, an easy read, and totally enjoyable. It may be a bit predictable at times, but the twists and turns in the story held my attention. I highly recommend this book if you are looking for a love story with some adventure and set in another country.
worldreader More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book.  Fast read and great story of first love and consequences. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A black tomkit with amber eyes padded in. "May i join." He askdd
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Everyone can join!" She says brightly. (Busy today sorry)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A silver kit with moon blue eyes pads in.