Monday, March 22, 2010

Helen Simonson recounts racial drama in an English village

I thought Helen Simonson’s debut novel sounded overly cute, and I could hardly believe the high praise of what sounded like a cutesy tale set in an English village. When I read this engaging novel, however, I thought that at last Jane Austen may have met her match.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Major Ernest Pettigrew, the hero of Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (355 pages, don house, $25) is a rather pompous and self-important widower who lives in a tiny Sussex village. His son Roger, who is a handsome young go-getter in banking, lives in London. He and the Major are not estranged exactly, but there are very few things about which they see eye to eye.

An early disagreement occurs over a pair of vintage sporting rifles, one belonging to the Major, and one to his brother, Bertie. When the novel opens, Bertie has just died, and amidst the Major’s concern for his widow and sense of deep loss, he nurtures the belief that his lone gun will now find its mate. It seems his father left one of the pair to each of them when he died and said that the guns should be reunited when one of the brothers died. The Major assumes that he will reassemble the pair and pass them on to his son in due course. His sister-in-law Marjorie has very different ideas about the guns. She wants to sell them quickly to have money for her daughter’s education. Roger angers the Major by siding with Marjorie—he is a banker after all and sees no point in having those guns hanging around in a collection—and he seems quite deaf to the Major’s sentimental motivations. After all, the Major says, the guns were presented to his father by an Indian prince at the time of partition and Indian independence. It seems the Colonel, the Major's father saved the prince's wife when a train they were riding on was attacked. If this is not romantic reason enough to preserve the guns, the Major thinks, then what would be?

The Major finds a sympathetic, if culturally distinct, response from the middle-aged proprietress of the local corner grocery store, Mrs. Ali. Mrs. Ali has taken over the shop when her husband died, and, childless, she has been a friend to many in the community. The Major is quite fond of her, and he enjoys confiding in her more than he had expected. Before this point, it seems, she has been the person who measured out his weekly purchase of tea and other staples. As she becomes a friend, though, he becomes aware of the depth of her understanding and the richness of her sympathy.
As the Major begins to think he might feel something more for Mrs. Ali, the less open-minded members of his local community notice and start to snipe in only the ways that small town gate keepers can snipe. The Major is not entirely immune to their bitter words. After all, he enjoys a key position in the community: revered, or at least respected, by all, he is a regular at the local golf club, he plays chess with his neighbors, and he is considered an antidote to outrageous behavior of any kind. Their whispering worries the Major more than he would like to admit.

Even worse is Roger’s appalled response to imagine that his father, at the ripe old age of sixty-eight, is dating the Pakistani woman who runs the grocery. The Major defends his friend Jasmina as a cultured and intelligent woman, but Roger won’t have any of it. Meanwhile he is staying in his father’s Sussex neighborhood with his faiancee, an American designer whose careless attitudes and acquisitive nature at first shock and anger the Major.

Mrs. Ali’s family is not any more approving than the Major’s. She has a dour Islamic fundamentalist nephew who has come from her husband’s family in the north to help her manage the shop. He is wildly disapproving, on religious grounds, of all her behavior, even of running a shop. And soon, she and the Major are having to sneak off for their afternoon teas and Sunday afternoons by the fire.

A more or less disastrous climax comes when the golf club decides to celebrate Colonel Pettigrew, the major’s father, in a short performance centering on the events that happened in India in the middle of the twentieth century. Since Roger has agreed to play the part of his grandfather, and to use the family guns, the Major is sure that disaster will strike. He is also worried that Mrs. Ali will be embarrassed by the representation of Indians in the piece. And Mrs. Ali’s nephew is against the whole travesty from the beginning.

Everything does blow up, almost literally, at this affair; but it is how the characters put the pieces back together after the break up that makes this a wonderful novel.

Simonson takes the simple materials of a small village, much as Jane Austen did, and she turns them into a truly wonderful novel.

Helen Simonson

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