April’s reading moves on apace with two more good works of fiction. In the photo of my TBR, I’m now on the last two books before the big blue one, although to be fair, more books have come on board since the picture was taken. I am winning the battle, though, as the front shelf is still not as full as it was at the beginning of this month. It’s a pleasant battle to be winning, too, with some real corkers read so far this month.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – “Get Ready for Battle”
(09 September 2012 – from Bridget)
A novella focused on an extended family in India and the conflicts within the immediate family, the extended family and the society beyond the family – all of which are scenes for the battle mentioned in the title. Gulzari Lal is in effect a capitalist patriarch, bringing his slightly ineffectual son, Vishnu, who craves both glamour and simplicity (and, when it comes to it, a quiet life) into his business. Sarla Devi is Vishnu’s mother, and still Gulzari Lal’s wife, but she lives in poverty at her brother’s house, trying to do simple good in society. This in turn is contrasted with the “social work” of the society wives and the selfish hedonism of the young business wives, and further contrasts are provided between the almost-socially acceptable mistress and the almost-prostitute dancing girl who are connected to the brothers-in-law.
Not much actually happens – the plot is loosely draped around the idea of a slum clearance that affects all of the groups of characters – but we are treated to a psychological examination of all strata of Indian society and all types of family member, and their interactions and interfaces, both good and bad. The mother’s actions in originally separating herself from the family are not, perhaps, explained enough, but the portrayal of the daughter-in-law and her lower-class friend and the complicated nature of their friendship and respective relationships with Vishnu are masterfully done, as we would expect of this author.
Willa Cather – “Sapphira and the Slave Girl” (Virago)
(09 September 2012 from Bridget)
This is the penultimate of the books passed to me by Bridget, and what a batch of treats they have provided. This one too, a nice original Virago green cover and an interesting and absorbing read. It’s a powerful novel set in 1850s Virginia, centring on a family that still owns slaves in an area where this is not illegal, but is frowned upon. The mistress, disabled by dropsy and trying to maintain the status quo amidst the potential collapse of the system, takes against her maid, Nancy, and sets out to destroy her. Sapphira’s daughter, Rachel, does her best to help all of the people in the neighbourhood, a bit like Sarla Devi in my previous read, putting society in general above her family in particular and motivated by a powerful need to redress the wrongs done by her mother, even if this has a shattering effect on her family.
It’s still shocking to read of people owning people, and the words used to describe those people made me uncomfortable, as did a strong underlying principle that emancipation can lead to excess and ruin, and that a society formed with strict places for all members should retain that system or risk complete anarchy – true small-c conservatism. But the powerful descriptions of the slave trade work against this slightly uneasy nostalgic attitude towards the old ways which is made explicit in the inconsistent treatment meted out to Sapphira’s slaves (we are also reminded in the introduction that this, Cather’s last novel, was a move to a discussion of her own family background, which sits these ideas more firmly in the authorial intent than in a fictional unreliable narrator).
All in all, though, it’s an absorbing story full of rounded human characters, if some flatter ones. The satisfying epilogue reveals the autobiographical nature of this novel, bringing the story up to date and providing a satisfactory resolution. Very evocative of period and place, and a good if sometimes uncomfortable read.
(Heaven-Ali has now read this one too and her review is here.)
I’ve just finished one of the memoirs I was reading and have another on the go, so the next review post will be a pair of memoirs, after a pair of non-fiction books and a pair of novels. It’s worked out naturally this way, but I quite like it, as I like writing these slightly longer reviews (are you enjoying reading them? More than the shorter ones?). Then it’s more non-fiction with a big, fat biography of the Queen and her times by Andrew Marr and a book on running …