Review 1747: Cromartie vs. the God Shiva

In its Afterword, Rumer Godden calls Cromartie vs. the God Shiva a twin to Coromandel Sea Change. It is partially set in the same location, the Patna Hotel on the Coromandel Sea, and has some of the same characters. When I realized this, I was excited, because I loved that book.

Michael Dean is chosen by his law firm to represent the government of India against Mr. Cromartie, a Canadian art dealer who is alleged to have purchased a stolen statue of the God Shiva worth a quarter of a million dollars. The statue was purchased from him, but now he is suing for money, so the government has to prove it was stolen.

Michael travels to the hotel. The statue was originally found when the hotel was built, so the owner made a shrine for it in the hotel ballroom. A noted archaeologist, Dr. Ellen Webster, had examined it several years before and told Auntie Sanni, the hotel manager, that it was valuable. A few years later, she realized it had been substituted for a good fake. When Michael questions the employees about it, they are all oddly evasive, and Auntie Sanni advises him to leave it alone. Dr. Webster arrives with her yearly tour group, and Michael falls in love at first sight with her assistant, Artemis.

This novel is a peculiar mixture. It evokes the flavors and smells of the village as do most of Godden’s India-set novels, but it turns into more of a mystery story. I don’t think it is quite as successful as some of her others, although it was nice to return to the Coromandel Sea. I believe this is my last book in my project to read Rumer Godden’s India novels.

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Review 1740: Premlata and the Festival of Lights

Premlata and the Festival of Lights is the first children’s book I’ve read in my mission to read all of Rumer Godden’s India novels.

Since seven-year-old Premlata’s Bapi died, her family is very poor. With all the village families preparing for Diwali, Premlata is shocked to find out that her mother has had to sell all their deepas, the little oil lamps that families put around their houses to help the goddess Kali battle the demons of darkness.

Premlata’s mother sends her up to the Big House to deliver some sweets to the housekeeper. While she is there, she goes to visit her friend Rajah the elephant and finds him being painted beautiful colors for the festival procession. This reminds her of the problem of the deepas, and she begins crying in front of Bijoy Rai, the kind owner of the Big House. Once she explains that her house will be the only dark one in the village for Diwali, Bijoy Rai gives her some money for her mother to buy deepas.

Premlata has a better idea, though. She will go to the town, three miles away, see Rajah in the procession, and buy the deepas herself.

This is a charming chapter book for children who are old enough to read. It introduces them to another culture and is a gentle story about good intentions gone slightly amiss. It includes a realistic adventure with elements of danger. I don’t know how easy it would be to find a copy, but I recommend it.

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Review 1723: A Fugue in Time

Godden attempts something unusual in A Fugue in Time. She makes a house that has held the same family for a century into a sort of conscious entity and tells the story of the family in collapsing time.

It’s World War II, and old Rolls Dane has received notice that the 99-year lease on his house has elapsed and the owners want it back. The house was the one his parents moved into upon their marriage, and it has been the scene of many events, including his own unhappy love affair.

Rolls has been leading a reclusive life with only one servant left in the big house, and he is not pleased when his great niece, Grizel, an American officer, comes to ask if she can stay in the house. Later, Pax Masterson, an RAF officer being treated for burns, comes to visit the house that he’s heard about all his life from his mother, Lark, the girl Rolls’s father brought home many years before after her parents died in a railway accident.

Although I eventually got involved in this novel, its basic premise seemed at first affected and I didn’t think it was going to work. Early on, for example, there is a five- or six-page description of the house that slowed momentum to a standstill. Then, the shifts in time sometimes take place within the same paragraph, and at first it’s hard to grasp the when. There are some cues, for example Rolls’s name changes from Roly to Rollo to Rolls.

This is not one of my favorite Godden books, but the idea behind it is an interesting one. It reminded me a little of A Harp in Lowndes Square, in which images and sounds of the future and past reside in a house.

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Review 1712: Pippa Passes

I have been reading the Indian novels of Rumer Godden, so I’m not quite sure how Pippa Passes got in there. It was published in the 1990’s and is set mostly in Venice. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Browning poem except by its being about a young, innocent girl. It does relate, however, to many of Godden’s novels that have a theme of the loss of innocence.

Pippa Fane is a 17-year-old ballet dancer who is new to the corps de ballet of an up-and-coming company from the English Midlands. The company is getting ready to tour Italy, and Pippa, as the newest member, doesn’t expect to be invited to come, but she is, at the insistence of Angharad Fullerton, the ballet mistress. Pippa’s friend, Juliette, warns her to beware of Angharad, but since the mistress has only been kind to Pippa, she pays no attention.

Pippa is enchanted at first sight of Venice and disappointed that Angharad expects the girls in the corps to do nothing but work and rest. When the other girls try to get her to go out the first night, she argues that Angharad told them to stay in and is left behind and taunted as Angharad’s pet. But instead, Angharad and the other company leaders take her out when they find she’s been abandoned.

Pippa’s star is beginning to rise with the company, but she has also met a gondolier named Niccolo who fascinates her. The company gives her a solo part after another dancer is injured, and at the same time Niccolo wants her to sing with his band.

I wasn’t as interested in this novel as I have been in the others by Godden that I have been reading. For one thing, it seems absurdly outdated for the 90’s, as Niccolo and his band make a splash dressed like gondoliers and singing such songs as “Santa Lucia” and “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. Yet, there’s no indication that the novel is set earlier. Also, although the information about the workings of the ballet company is interesting, I don’t think it was necessary to include pages describing the action of The Tales of Hoffman. And for the 1990’s, Pippa seems far too naïve about the intentions of both Angharad and Niccolo, and some readers may understand the novel as slightly homophobic. It’s possible that the novel was written many years earlier, but then there should have been some indication that it was set, say, in the 1950’s, if it was.

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Review 1704: The Peacock Spring

Una, who shows promise for studying mathematics at university, has only two more years to prepare, having fallen behind because of all her moves between different schools with her diplomat father. Then, just as she’s feeling she will stay at Cerne, her father suddenly summons her and her sister Hal to India. They are to have a governess.

Una is sorely disappointed at this behavior that is so unlike Edward. Then she meets the governess, Alix, a beautiful Eurasian who orders around the servants and calls her father Edward. Soon she figures out that Alix is woefully uneducated. She does not know the difference between mathematics and arithmetic, and her idea of studying literature is to look at pictures of works cut from a magazine, not to read the works themselves. It becomes clear to Una that the girls are in India to hide from society that Edward and Alix are lovers.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the house, the second gardener, Ravi, is an ex-university student and poet on the run from the law after a demonstration. When he realizes Una is struggling to teach herself calculus, he offers help. He cannot help her, but his friend Hem can. So, Una begins sneaking out to meet Hem and Ravi.

This novel was another stunner from Godden. It overloads the senses with sights and smells as Alix tries to hide her past and Una strays from her goals.

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Review 1697: Black Narcissus

After reading Coromandel Sea Change, I decided to find more of Rumer Godden’s India novels and read them. Black Narcissus was the first (although I have already reviewed a few of the others), and I found it mysterious and haunting.

Sister Clodagh and a small group of Anglican nuns arrive at a palace above a remote Himalayan village to establish a convent, hospital, and school. The abandoned palace once was the home of the General’s father’s harem. He first gave it to religious brothers for a boys’ school, but after only five months, they left with no explanation.

From the first, the place seems to affect the sisters oddly. Sister Clodagh finds herself dreaming about Ireland and Con, whom she thought would marry her long ago. Sister Philippa, the gardener, becomes involved with the flower garden, to the neglect of the vegetables and the laundry. Sister Honey becomes too involved with the children. Sister Ruth, always difficult, becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean, the General’s agent. The sisters occasionally begin to forget their devotions.

Mr. Dean has warned the sisters about possible cultural misunderstandings with the villagers, but although they sometimes make an attempt to understand the natives, mostly the sisters heedlessly continue on their agendas. The sense of foreboding grows.

This is an absolutely terrific novel, very atmospheric, in which the brooding mountain across from the convent becomes almost godlike, certainly a character. I was so rivetted, I stayed up late into the night until I finished it.

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Review 1694: The Lady and the Unicorn

The Anglo-Indian Lemarchant family lives in the annex of a crumbling mansion in Calcutta. Belle, the oldest daughter, is beautiful, fair, and charming, with the reputation of a saint but a character lacking in morals. She is determined to do whatever it takes to get rich, which, for her, means marrying the right man. Rosa, the second daughter, is fair and gentle. She tells lies when she is scared, so has a worse reputation than Belle even though she is much more moral. Blanche, the youngest, is dark in complexion and generally treated disdainfully because of it but is the most honest.

At a party, Rosa meets Stephen Bright, a British young man who treats her respectfully and seems different than the others. But he is new to India and doesn’t understand how he’s expected to behave in 1930’s India. While he is dating Rosa, he becomes interested in the old mansion, where they find evidence of French nobility having built it.

Out in the garden at times Rosa and then several other characters see a sobbing woman and a little dog. Others report seeing a carriage departing from the house. These appear to be ghosts.

This novel is an unusual case of a doomed romance and an ancient mystery. I liked it, but it seems more cynical than Godden’s other Indian novels, though they often have sad endings.

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Review 1675: Kingfishers Catch Fire

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.

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Review 1660: Breakfast with the Nikolides

Because of the war, Louise and her children are forced to return to her husband Charles in India for the first time in many years. There, they take up what is apparently a toxic relationship.

Louise is a fearful, sometimes hysterical woman who seems to dislike Emily, her 12-year-old daughter. Louise considers her sly and deceptive when in actuality Emily is very truthful but seems unable to behave naturally with Louise. Emily loves India, but Louise only sees its dirty and ugly sides, not its charm.

The situation between husband and wife and between mother and child comes to a head over Emily’s dog, Don. In a crucial moment, Louise chooses to lie to Emily rather than tell her the truth as Charles advises.

In general, I liked this colorful novel, which, as always with Godden’s India novels, is luminous in its descriptions and sympathetic to its characters. However, for modern audiences there is a recounting of a rape scene that is handled in a very problematic way. For me, it detracted a good deal from my enjoyment of the novel.

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Review 1650: The River

Harriet and her family live along the river in a town in India. Harriet is dismayed at the changes in her sister Bea, who is becoming a young lady and is no longer fun to play with. Her brother Bogey spends his time looking at insects and animals in the garden. Victoria is just a baby. Harriet spends some time each day writing in her book that she keeps hidden away, and she also is fascinated by her parents’ guest, Captain John, who was injured in WWI. Captain John, however, likes Bea best.

This little novel has a plot, but it is mostly atmospheric and descriptive, of the garden and house, of life on the river. I was just a short way in when I realized that I had seen the movie based on it by Jean Renoir. I said, “If there’s a snake, I’ve seen this.” There was a snake.

The semi-autobiographical novel is about Harriet waking up from childhood and complete self-involvement and learning to become a writer. It is beautiful and touching.

My Virago Modern Classics version also included two short stories, “Red Doe,” about Ibrahim, a bakriwar nomad who is on the way to another encampment to claim a wife, and “The Little Black Ram,” about Jassouf, a bad boy who is tamed by being give a black ram to care for.

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