There has never been a more picked-up-at-random than this book. Basically I was at Bongs & Noodles before the storm, trying to pick out a good hurricane book. And I kind of wanted to get Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I had already read it. And I kind of wanted to get The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro, because of how haunting I remember Never Let Me Go was, but I felt doubtful about it. So I sat on a chair gazing at my options, and then I realized that what I really wanted was to read The Far Pavilions again for the first time. Darling Far Pavilions! Or I would have settled for Shadow of the Moon. I greatly wished for some sort of machine that would have allowed me to revert to my pre-reading-Far-Pavilions self. (Or my pre-Diana-Wynne-Jones self. Then I could have looked at my bookshelves and had all these brilliant new books to read.)
Anyway, that was impossible, so instead of that I went and put “the raj fiction” into the Bongs & Noodles computer search thing, and it pulled up The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott, and I blew thirty-five dollars on the first two of the four. Essentially because, you know, the Raj is interesting, and because I just wanted something long to get me through the hurricane, and because I figured if I hated it I could always return it before the two weeks was up.
(I hate the new B&N return policy.)
I actually really, really, really liked it. It’s a story about stuff that happens towards the end of the Raj. Basically, a British girl has an Indian lover, and she gets raped by a bunch of not-her-lover Indians. And that bit of plot is dealt with pretty thoroughly, but what I liked about the book, actually, was the way Paul Scott writes. He spends the bulk of the book looping around the primary events, having all these different narrators tell different bits of the story, and they’re all telling completely different bits. Compared to all the background you get, the bones of the story – how Daphne & Hari fall in love, and what happens That Night – only takes up a few pages. And Mr. Scott didn’t do the looping and swirling in a boring way. It was all very interesting, with many, many people saying what they thought about The Incident, and also what they thought about the Raj anyway, generally. Very, very cool.
I wish I knew more about the Raj, because I had a bit of a hard time with some of the politics, not knowing the facts of what was happening at this time. It was interesting that Mr. Scott wrote almost entirely from the point of view of the British characters – I guess you could see it as him being racist and only giving voices to the Brits, but as a white girl who writes, I wouldn’t feel incredibly comfortable speaking for people whose experiences I could never, ever have had, so maybe that’s how he felt too.
Salman Rushdie was angry at this book because Daphne Manners gets raped, and she’s white, and he thought it wasn’t a good metaphor for the violence Britain was doing to India. Which I can see. And I realize that Mr. Scott was saying many other things besides just “A white girl got raped by brown people” when he wrote this story. But still, there was a fair bit of classism to the whole affair, I thought, messily entangled with the kind of unrecognized racism that’s addressed throughout the book, and it was not very nice to read.
In addition, I found it unsettling because she – this is a spoiler though you’ll probably have figured it out by the time she explains just what happened – gets attacked and raped by a bunch of Indian hooligans when they spot her having sex with her (Indian) lover Hari. And that was scary and I don’t like rape scenes.
All of which is to say, I enjoyed the bulk of this book enough to think it worth my while to read the second one. I am interested in what Paul Scott has to say. It is very difficult to deal fairly with racism and oppression when you are liberal-minded but still, inevitably, one of the oppressors. As this is something that troubles me (a lot), I enjoy to read books that deal with it.