Sunday, January 29, 2012

Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet ends in a powerful reminder of the cost of colonialism.

I have read these four novels one after the other because they are so compelling. Now that I have read them, I am pleased to be reminded of their particular power.

A Division of the Spoils

A Division of the Spoils (608 pages, $20, University of Chicago Press) is the last volume in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, and it brings together many of the strands of the earlier three volumes.

We hear in this novel what happens to Merrick and what the ultimate diagnosis of this aggressive anti-Indian stance amounts to. Not the most satisfying feature of the novel, Merrick’s all-too-predictable sado-masochistic homosexuality is a dreary commentary on some of Scott’s own obsessions. Seeing Merrick dressed up in Indian garb before this execution is all too easy a way to explain some of the worst excesses of the British Raj. Merrick is always under suspicion because of class. He is demonized, to a certain extent, because he is not as well educated as other characters. And he seems to hate Hari Kumar, who barely appears in this volume, because Hari speaks a more educated English than he does.

If Merrick’s nighttime masquerading as an Indian doesn’t move a reader, however, there is plenty else that might. An assortment of characters who are involved in England’s gradual, but finally abrupt-seeming withdrawal from the sub-continent are all interesting in different ways.

Guy Perron, who appeared briefly as a seeming effete sergeant in earlier volumes, now reappears and moves from scene to scene pulling threads of the narrative together. Out of the same educational tradition—Chillingborough, which was Hari Kumar’s school, and Cambridge—Guy seems an anomaly in a world in which the more educated are usually the more highly ranked. But Guy prefers to remain a sergeant because he is not put into positions of huge responsibility. And with a very rich and well-connected aunt back in England, he has a kind of “get-out-of-jail-free” card, which he invokes more than once.

When Merrick meets Guy, after a grisly suicide and a baleful encounter with local largesse, he takes him up as a permanent assistant, beleaguering Guy with all his class anxieties and taking out on him some of the frustration he feels.

From Guy, though, who meets Sarah Layton and feels something of a romantic connection to her, we hear all about the movements of Merrick: his marriage to Susan Bingham, Sarah’s sister, and his involvement with a small Hindu principality throws a light on some of the local horrors of partition and the British abandonment of some of its promises.

Also, a character imprisoned for political beliefs, Mohammed Ali Kasim is released, and we see him in touching scenes with both his sons. The older, Salim, has fought with the Japanese troupes against the British in India, and the younger son, one of the most likable characters in the novel, becomes a victim of Hindu anti-Muslim violence in a horrifying scene that ends the novel.

This novel represents Scott at this best. It is as powerful now as it was when he published it in 1975.

Paul Scott

A Division of the Spoils is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

G. M. Malliet writes a murder mystery set in an English country village.

I read about this novel and thought it might be fun.

Wicked Autumn

With Wicked Autumn (320 pages, Minotaur, $23.99), G. M. Malliet starts a new detective series featuring Max Tudor, a former MI5 agent, who now works as the local Anglican priest in the tiny village of Nether Monkslip.

This series will allow G. M. Malliet to paint the richness (and nastiness) of English village life, and to give her handsome and single detective a series of country lasses to intrigue and challenge him.

In this novel, Max almost meets his match in the form of a fashionable and very beautiful young woman who is a suspect in the murder of a local fund-raising demon who was also a loudmouth and a bossy community leader, Wanda Batton-Smythe.

The death, which took place at the annual Harvest Fayre, which the victim took the lead in organizing, looks like it might have been an accident. Wanda succumbed as a result of her allergy to peanuts. Max has and the police have a hard time figuring out how Wanda could have been forced to ingest peanuts, or peanut cookies, but that’s what certainly seems to have happened.

The investigation takes us in and around an assortment of cottages and gives us a close look at several different members of the village community. There is the other-worldly but very intelligent owner of a new-age herbal store; the eccentric writer, who is always flogging his latest publication; and the eccentric owner of the local bookstore.

All these places are developed amusingly, and the characters take their places in village life with aplomb. If there is something a little stagey about the whole procedure—the place seems just too cute for its own good—Malliet gets into the deep unhappiness and frustration of many of the community members in order to reassure us that this is not a National Trust fantasy.

I think we can look forward to more Max Tudor novels with pleasure.

G. M. Malliet

Wicked Autumn is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet remains intriguing.

I thought I would pace myself with these four volumes, but after I read the first I found I couldn’t stop. Here’s the third, and I will go right on to the fourth. There is a “fifth” too, called Staying On, but we’ll see about that.

The Towers of Silencece

The Towers of Silence (399 pages, University of Chicago, $20) is the third volume of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. It fills in much of what the first and second volumes cover, especially the story of Teddie Bingham, who married Susan Layton and then was killed at the Burmese front of the Second World War. We see Gordon Merrick, too, wounded and incapacitated, still nursing his grievance against Hari Kumar and still hoping for some kind of closure.

Sarah and Susan Layton, and their mother Mildred, are more central to this story. Susan, who slipped into a mad-seeming postpartum depression is recovering slowly. Sarah is trying to cope with her own disenchantment, both with her own family and with the entire British enterprise, but her only outward show of rebellion is her giving up her virginity in a crazy night in Calcutta, where she has gone to carry Susan’s thanks to Gordon Merrick. Merrick, it was thought, had helped Teddie at the time of the attack.

Another figure who is central to this volume and who only appeared briefly before, is Barbara Batchelor, a rather crazed retired schoolteacher who rented a room with Mabel Layton, Mildred’s step-mother, in Rose Cottage, and thereby earned the enmity of Mildred, who wanted that Cottage for herself, and Mildred’s friends.

Barbie, as she is known, knew Edwina Crane, the teacher who died in the first volume of the Quartet, and she keeps Edwina’s memory alive. She has a spooky sort of religious belief, and those she has lost, including Mabel who dies in the middle of this novel, haunt her everyday life, and she talks to them quite openly.

This ghostliness is suitable because Barbie herself is wraith-like and she haunts some of the other characters, especially the often-drunken Mildred Layton, as if she were a visitor from some other world. The hatred that Mildred feels for Barbie is irrational, but Barbie in her simple, neurotic, and unmeaning way, does expose Mildred as an adulteress and a drunk.

The person who understands and defends Barbie is Sarah, herself alienated, and sensitive to the older woman’s pain. The scenes between them are touching, and when the nasty British society of the their town start to suggest that Barbie’s interest might be lesbian, as Barbie hears from her friend Clarissa, even this solace becomes tainted.

The other important character in this novel, if it can be considered in terms of “character,” is the women’s society of this hill town that is a microcosm of colonial British culture. The women are left behind as the men go off to fight the Japanese, and the result is an exposure of everything that is wrong about the colonial presence. These women are petty and venal and self-important in ways that are almost laughable, and Scott seems to be using them as a way of talking about British-Indian relations.

This is another remarkable novel. No less moving than the other wonderful volumes in The Raj Quartet, it deepens our understanding of this dying empire and the pain with which its presence in India will come to an end.

Paul Scott

The Towers of Silence
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Kate Atkinson gives Jackson Brodie a dog, and that changes everything.

I have read a few of Kate Atkinson’s superb crime novels that feature the elusive private investigator, Jackson Brodie. In this novel, she puts him through his paces once again, but this time she gives him a canine sidekick.

Started Early, Took My Dog

The title of this novel, Started Early, Took My Dog (371 pages, Back Bay Books, $14.99), comes from a haunting poem by Emily Dickinson. And indeed, it turns out that the hard-bitten Jackson Brodie has become something of a poetry lover since his last outing, and Emily Dickinson quotations keep popping into his head at the oddest moments. But like this first one, they are always appropriate.

Jackson finds himself with a dog after he challenges someone who was abusing the little charmer. No sooner has Jackson taken up the mutt, than he finds himself smitten. The animal is small enough to hide in a backpack, so Jackson takes him virtually everywhere he goes.

Jackson is in Yorkshire trying to find parents or at least some information about the background of a woman in New Zealand who is desperate to find out something about her past. When adoption papers and so on prove to be false, Jackson has a hard time finding a lead.

In the meantime, Tracy, a retired cop who is now working for security in a mall, finds herself grabbing a child in circumstances quite similar to Jackson’s. In this case, a small girl is being hauled around and abused by a woman who might be her mother. Tracy offers her a bagful of cash—she was planning to pay for home improvements—and walks away with the child. As soon as she does, however, she feels guilty and paranoid, and she tries to figure out what she can do to escape the law, of which, of course, she has been a part until now.

Tracy turns out also to be a link in the chain of what Jackson is trying to discover, but she doesn’t want any part of the past that he is trying to turn up. As they live their parallel quests, and almost confront each other, the reasons that they might be able to help each other are made patently clear.

It seems that Tracy was, much earlier, indirectly connected with the abduction of two young children, and her boss Barry and his bosses are far more deeply implicated. Something about that 1975 case has always bothered her, and now that she has abducted a child herself, even if it is for the child’s good, she has nightmares about what transpired in the past.

All these narrative threads do come together, rather spectacularly, in the end. But that’s not before Jackson’s dog has saved him from being ground up in a trash compactor and Tracy’s little girl has reminded her what it means to care for another human being.

There are many more minor but fully engaging characters, and Yorkshire, from Leeds to Whiby, comes beautifully alive in this finely crafted novel. I recommend it.

Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My Dog is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Julian Barnes writes a thoughtful novella.

I have enjoyed Booker-prize-winning Julian Barnes in the past, and I was delighted to read his latest novel. Its winning the 2011 Man Booker Prize only made it more delectable.

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending (176 pages, Knopf, $23.95) takes the form of a ruminative memoir. I called it a novella above because it has the shape of something briefer than a novel, almost a long short story. That’s in part because it has a moral twist of an ending that reminds the reader of some of the best American short stories. Barnes perhaps over-invests his shocking ending with explanatory power. What is really powerful is everything that comes before the ending.

Like many British memoirists, the hero, Tony Webster, ruminates over relationships in so-called public school. Tony has two close friends at school, and they are smart enough to spend their time “taking the piss” out of their teachers and putting up their noses at the whole idea. Then along comes Adrian Finn, and they find themselves rethinking their position. They can never tell whether the brilliant Adrian is taking the piss or not.

Tony is especially fascinated with Adrian, and he spends time spinning out his ideas from memory, as he looks back after forty years. He also looks back on his frustrating and only semi-fulfilling relation with a enigmatic girl called Victoria. Even when he breaks up with Victoria, he is not sure where he stands with her. He almost seemed to get along better with her mother than he did with her.

Imagine his surprise, then, when Victoria’s mother leaves him a small legacy after her death thirty-some years on. After Tony broke with Victoria, she took up with Adrian, and at the time of their marriage, he wrote them both off as lost causes.

In the ensuing years, Tony had a successful, if uneventful, life. And now that he has to confront the past once again, because of the particular nature of the legacy, Adrian finds himself swept up in emotions that he thought he had put to rest.

As Tony tries to pry some secrets out of Victoria and confront his own earlier emotions, all his suppositions collapse and he finds himself confronting features of the past quite different from those he has constructed for himself.

This is exciting, in its way, and it does show Barnes at his most subtle and sophisticated. I enjoyed the novel a lot, but I think the plot would have made a great short story too.

Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.