Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Complete Booker 2010 Challenge: Staying On

If this book was a color, it might be pale grey. Not a bad color, as far as it goes, but neither memorable nor dramatic.

Scott's novel is narrowly drawn and follows an interesting time sequence as it tells the story of a day in the life of a British couple who have "stayed on" in Pankot, India, after the end of British colonial rule. After 25 years, the lives of Colonel "Tusker" Smalley and his wife, Lucy, have grown paler, even as they have retained their essentially British view of their station.

One of the interesting things about their story is that although Colonel Smalley dies of a heart attack in the first sentence, he is one of the most vibrant characters. The story unwinds his life and career, following that thread until it leads back to his death in the final pages. Scott does a nice job of handling what could be a serious difficulty in the novel's chronology. Along the way we gain some insight into the Colonel's character as a mediocre military bureaucrat and an adequate but somewhat disappointing husband, mostly from Lucy's viewpoint. Overall, the Colonel is a functionary whose time has passed him by.

Lucy seems to have a better grasp on their current reality. As a traditional wife, Lucy defers to the Colonel in many ways, while simultaneously managing (or manipulating) his rather irascible temperament. She maneuvers quite deftly through their changed situation, recognizing that she needs to buffer the Colonel's blustery, outdated approaches to dealing with their Indian landlords and neighbors. Although she is often at odds with her husband, in a genteel way, by the end--in a surprisingly moving conclusion--we realize that her life is irrevocably tied to his.

Comic relief is provided by the Indian landlords, Mrs. Bhoolabhoy, a shrewd, corpulent businesswoman usually referred to as "Ownership," and her reedy, henpecked husband, Mr. Bhoolabhoy, known as "Management." These characters engaged neither my interest nor my emotions. When Scott's focus shifts to them, they seem like distractions, rather than the foils Scott probably intends them to be. Because the Bhoolabhoys do not carry any weight of their own, comparing their marriage to the Smalleys' is ineffective.

Part of the paleness of this novel may be its relationship to The Raj Quartet, Scott's four linked novels in which Colonel and Lucy Smalley appear very briefly in a crowd scene. Perhaps that shadowy appearance would have been enough for them.


But just then she heard him say, "Ha!" which meant he had found another passage to criticize in poor old Mr Maybrick's charming little book on the history of Pankot, and that if she went out to say Tusker what is to happen to me etcetera she wouldn't have the chance to open her mouth because he would start complaining about some tiny little error Mr. Maybrick had made. Either that or he would be so absorbed (or pretending to be) that the vital question would be rewarded at best with no answer or at worst by some coarse counter-question such as What the bloody hell are you talking about?

"Tusker and I do not truly communicate with one another any more," she told the empty living room.

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