Before she is even eight years old, Teresa has learned to put her head down and cry when her mother has an idea. Sophie Barrington-Ward is feckless, naïve, doesn’t listen to anyone else, and only sees what she wants to see. Widowed and left relatively poor after paying off her husband’s debts, she has worked so hard at jobs she’s not qualified for that she gets sick. Recovering, she has an idea. The Kashmiri peasants are poor, but they are healthy and well-fed. Why not rent a house in the Kashmir countryside and live like a peasant?
Of course, she has no ability to live like a peasant and has no understanding of just how poor the villagers are. As she settles into her house in the high Himalayas, she doesn’t notice that the villagers are vying for opportunities to make money from her. She consistently overpays and doesn’t listen to the advice of her landlord or his caretaker, Nabir. More dangerously, she doesn’t realize that there are two feuding factions in the village, the Sheikhs and the Dārs.
Teresa knows that it is Nabir who keeps them safe, particularly herself and her little brother Moo. But Nabir has a pride and aloofness that makes him seem insolent. And he has people working against him, including Sultan, the incompetent house servant Sophie brought from the city. Over time, a dangerous situation evolves.
Like the other India-based novels by Godden I’ve been reading lately, Kingfishers Catch Fire is freighted with a love of this region that does not miss its cruelties. Its descriptions are lush. Its heroine is complex. At first frustrated by Sophie’s faults and her lack of understanding of her daughter, I eventually came to admire her. Although I thought Black Narcissus was wonderful (I haven’t reviewed it yet), I think this novel is even better.
The afterword notes that this novel is one of Godden’s mostly autobiographical, and it includes a short section of excerpts from Godden’s Kashmir diary.