Rumer Godden was around for so long as an author that when I couldn’t find the book by her that I had on my Classics Club list, I thought nothing of substituting Coromandel Sea Change. Even when I noticed a publication date of 1991, I assumed it was a reprint. It wasn’t, however, which brings up something I’ve been thinking about, and that’s how do we decide something is a classic if it’s not tested by time? I associate Godden with the 30’s through 50’s, when she was very active, and which I considered long enough ago to put her on my list. Oh well. We had this discussion on the Classics Club blog, in fact, this book was the one that gave me the idea. In any case, it is a wonderful, atmospheric book.
Newlyweds Blaise and Mary Browne arrive at Patna Hall on the Coromandel Sea evincing different reactions. Mary is enchanted by this view of the “real India,” while Blaise is enraged that their rooms are not in the main hotel and offended by the bathroom arrangements. As a couple, they seem particularly ill-suited—the young Mary is eager to observe ordinary people and take part in their customs while the older Blaise, a diplomat, is interested only in schmoozing with important people. Very soon, they are bickering like children while the other guests and hotel staff look on in dismay and Kuku, the young assistant manager, hopes to get her chance with Blaise.
The hotel is busy with an upcoming parliamentary election, and Mary meets Krishnan, one of the candidates, out on the beach one night. He is young and charismatic and seems genuinely concerned to help his people. Mary is happy to oblige when the campaign asks for her help, but Blaise is offended and misinterprets her interest.
In this novel, the stories of Mary and Blaise are not the only interest. The hotel staff are important, and the country itself is vividly evoked and almost a character. The election is charming in its own way. Even a donkey named Slippers, an elephant named Birdie, and a squirrel have their places. Mary is likable, although very naive, while Blaise is pretty unbearable.
Despite the sad ending to this novel, I found it colorful and charming. It made me want to visit the Coromandel Sea. Research has told me that the area was virtually destroyed by the tsunami in 2004, but apparently Chennai, mentioned in the book, is considered a top location to visit by Lonely Planet, so perhaps the area has recovered. In any case, perhaps it isn’t the paradise described by Godden anymore.