Archive for April, 2012

The Dark Horse by Rumer Godden ~ 1981.  This edition: Viking Press, 1982. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-25664-1. 203 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10.

Rumer Godden assembles a motley collection of stereotyped characters in this predictable little story, which was apparently based on a true incident of the 1930s Indian racing scene.

Other than the intriguing setting – English-style thoroughbred racing in India during the final days of the Raj –  I found absolutely no surprises here. I would give this slight novel permanent shelf room only to round out a collection of the author’s works, and – yes – I’ll say it yet again –  because even a poor Rumer Godden is worth keeping around for dipping into as a casual light read.

A race horse who has not fulfilled his earlier promise ends up in India with his has-been, sometimes-alcoholic, defrocked-jockey-cum-stable boy. A noble and understanding trainer discovers the reason why the horse won’t perform; after a few ups and downs the big race is run; no prizes are given for predicting the winner. Oh yes, there’s a convent of rather saintly nuns involved as well. (Rumer Godden does do nuns quite well – I’ll give her that.)

This comes out sounding a bit harsh and dismissive, but I’ll temper it. There’s some good stuff in here too, and Rumer Godden obviously drew on her own experiences in India because the setting and time is lovingly portrayed and convincing in its detail. The horses are nicely characterized; the author obviously spent some time paying close attention in the stables during her long and varied life.

Sadly, in this tale, the humans are all a bit too one-dimensional to be quite as believable as the horses. There is a lot of commentary on the social ostracization both of the wealthy “outsider” race-horse owner Leventine, and trainer John Quillan’s lovely Eurasian wife; the point that this is a bad thing is hammered home good and hard as Godden mounts this particular soapbox and lets herself go.

This is one of Rumer Godden’s decidedly minor works. A pleasant enough story, but not up to the standard of her best efforts, either in plot or character development. The whole thing felt a bit distracted, as if the author’s mind was only paying partial attention as she whipped this one off.

Which is how this reader felt as well as she whipped through the story hoping for more engagement than she could muster up. Rumer – I’ll give you a pass because you’ve done so well so many times in the past; I’ll allow a few bobbles in a lifetime of supporting yourself and your family by the written word; the pressure to produce something – anything! – to put food on the table must have been intense. The Dark Horse was written in the 45th year of the author’s long writing career, and is, I believe, the twenty-first adult novel Rumer Godden wrote, in a lifetime output of something like seventy adult, non-fiction and children’s books.

A plea from me – do not judge this author on this book! Like the “A” and “B” girls she references in the novel, her own work falls into decidedly separate categories, though the quality of the writing shines through even in the lowest of the “B”s.

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diddakoi rumer goddenThe Diddakoi by Rumer Godden ~ 1972. This edition: Macmillan, 2007.  Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-330-45330-1. 152 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Also published as Gypsy Girl in some editions. Do not confuse with another of Rumer Godden’s titles – Gypsy, Gypsy (1940) – which is a decidedly adult novel.

I have a vaguely uneasy relationship with this small story of the half-Irish, half-Romani (“gypsy girl”) Kizzy. The writing is of very high quality (no surprise there; Rumer Godden seemed incapable of turning out a poorly written phrase) but the plot – oh! – the plot is terribly contrived, especially when read with today’s sensibilities.

Young Kizzy, about 6 or 7 years old (she doesn’t know her birthday), lives with her great-great grandmother in a shabby, blocked-up gypsy wagon on a corner of Admiral Sir Archibald Twiss’s estate. Ancient Joe, who used to pull the wagon, grazes away his days and is Kizzy’s favourite companion, and all is generally well, if occasionally cold and hungry, in Kizzy’s little world.

The village do-gooder, Mrs. Cuthbert, twigs  to the fact that Kizzy is school-age and decidedly not at school; she cries “neglect!” and calls in the welfare officer and the official wheels are set in motion. Off our wee heroine goes to the village school, where she immediately falls afoul of a village’s worth of young “mean girls” (ringleader none other than Mrs. Cuthbert’s daughter Prue) who set upon her as a ready-made victim for their taunts.

Kizzy copes as best she can, but things get even worse. Her Gran dies, relatives are located and called in to deal with things, the wagon is burned in accordance with Gran’s wishes (an old Romani custom upon a death), and Joe is destined for the knacker’s yard, while an argument erupts over who will take Kizzy in. No one much wants her.

Kizzy takes control of her own destiny, and of Joe’s, escaping in the night and ending up on Admiral Twiss’s doorstep begging sanctuary for her horse. Of course, in the proper melodramatic tradition, she now falls ill and “cannot be moved” (apparently there are no ambulances available in 1970s England to transport a gravely ill child to hospital!) and must be cared for by the Admiral and his two devoted retainers.

To condense: Kizzy is re-homed with understanding Miss Brooke, though with more than a little resistance from Kizzy who was quite content in the Admiral’s bachelor establishment. The bullying at school escalates into a physical episode where Kizzy is injured, bringing the situation at long last to the official notice of the village adults who had been letting things work themselves out. The young bullies are allowed their chance at redemption; Kizzy learns to love dedicated Miss Brooke; a proper home is providentially provided; and all’s well that ends well.

For all of the predictability and sometimes glaring flaws in the plot-line, this story works out quite well. We develop an affection and admiration for this stubbornly individual child who refuses to be a victim of fate, even while being tossed and turned by events beyond her control. Though the ending is a little too good to be true, we feel that justice has been done at last; it serves to satisfy the moral craving for “good to be rewarded, wicked to be punished” which lies at the heart of all classic story tales.

A bit of a period piece. Especially dated, in my opinion, is the episode of the young girl being left in the intimate care of three men completely unrelated to her, with the full approval of the local doctor and the child welfare officer – does anyone else raise an eyebrow at this unlikely nowadays scenario? A sentimental read for teens and adults, and a generally interesting and satisfying children’s book.

Read-Aloud:  Works well as a read-aloud for all ages of children, though prepare for discussion of the bullying as it is quite graphic. There are also two deaths (Granny and Joe), plus a nearly tragic episode involving a house fire. The narrative jumps around somewhat, making it challenging to follow for very young children; I’m thinking 6 or 7 and up is best though littler ones could certainly listen in. This story moves along at a good pace and holds interest well both for the reader and the listeners.

Read-Alone: Good chapter book for fluent readers in the 7-ish to 11-ish year-old age range. Written with an advanced (adult) style and vocabulary; not at all an “easy reader” but a “real book” for a novice bibliovore to tackle.

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Thursday’s Children by Rumer Godden ~ 1984. This edition: Viking Press, 1984. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-71196-9. 249 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

During most of her long career, Rumer Godden was widely viewed as a “popular” versus a “literary” writer, and it is her second-string novels such as Thursday’s Children that serve as evidence for that slightly scornful designation.

Her work did vary widely – as she herself commented – between those books she felt “demanded” to be written, and those that she searched out themes for and “chose” to write. This novel has a “Hmmm, what shall I write about?” feel to it. This said, I’ve read and re-read Thursday’s Children with enjoyment over the years because it is, after all, a Rumer Godden book, which means very competently written with flashes of wry humour, even in the most clichéd of her occasional “hack” novels.

Thursday’s Children is listed variously as a children’s book and as an adult novel. In truth it falls somewhere in between, and perhaps might best be categorized as belonging to the nebulous “young adult” genre, though I suspect its true audience is an older generation looking for a comfort read.

The plot is low-key melodrama, reminiscent of the recent popular film Billy Elliot: young boy stumbles into a dance class, realizes his destiny, faces numerous obstacles, wins over scornful/homophobic father/friends/enemies, and ultimately succeeds. The weakness of this scenario is its predictability; we know from the moment that young Doone fumbles through his first steps in the hallway of his sister’s dancing school that he is destined for the spotlight; his subsequent journey is only of interest in seeing how the author has handled the stock situation.

Side note: I was curious as to whether Billy Elliot or Thursday’s Children influenced each other; it appears that Godden was first out of the gate on this one. It was published in 1984, while the Billy Elliot film was released in 2000. The “boy stumbles into dance” situation is hardly exclusive, and – to be fair – many “real life” male dancers have had similar epiphanies.

Set in London, England in an undesignated time, (though clues point to late 1960s or early 1970s), Thursday’s Children is a double narrative of two young dancers, Doone and his older sister Crystal. Crystal is the much-doted upon daughter of the middle-class Penny family, the long-desired girl following four older brothers, while Doone is her younger brother – an unwelcome “afterthought” child – decidedly unplanned for and viewed with bemusement and a shade of resentment by Maud (“Ma”) Penny, whose family yearnings were more than fulfilled by Crystal’s appearance. Turns out that Ma was once a dancing chorus girl, and her maternal ambitions for Crystal are much grander – nothing but ballet lessons with the “Russian” Madame Tamara (who incidentally started out life as plain old English Minnie Price) will do. Doone,  dragged along by an unwilling Crystal to her Saturday morning dance classes, falls in love with the music and the movement, and away our story goes on its predictable little track.

Rumer Godden proceeds to work her charms with the material at hand. Doone is almost too good for belief, for not only is he a piano-playing prodigy and a natural dancer, he is a thoroughly sweet, sensitive, and likably nice child as well, despite his family’s dual neglect and  bullying. Doone, unsupported by his own family in his quest, is providentially blessed with a series of understanding artsy unrelated adults who instantly recognize his budding genius and smooth his path at every turn. I find that though his dogged “goodness” occasionally annoys, in general I quite like Doone; he shows occasional flashes of wit and bad temper which redeem him from total Little Loud Fauntleroyism.

Crystal, on the other hand, is a far from likeable child. Vain, fickle and scheming, she manipulates everyone in her little world, especially her besotted mother. Jealous of Doone’s recognition by their shared teachers, Crystal actively plots his thwarting, though her schemes are immediately recognized by those omnipotent adults as the two siblings rise through the ranks to their eventual placements in the exclusive Royal Ballet School.

Rumer Godden herself had a life-long involvement with dance, as a long-time dance student who returned to England to train as a teacher, eventually running her own dance school in Calcutta, so all of the technical talk rings true. Her scathing portrayal of the “typical dance mother” strikes close to home. Full disclosure: I am a dance mother myself, and I both laugh and cringe at Godden’s commentary on our many collective follies, though she has also given full credit to the difficulty of reconciling the many needs and expenses of the dancer with the needs and desires of the rest of the family – in the Penny family, as in so many real-life families, the dancer takes precedence.

The characters are allowed to develop in a reasonably natural way, and they surprise us occasionally by their responses, which keeps things interesting though in the main our predictions prove to be correct. Crystal is eventually allowed her chance at redemption; rather a Rumer Godden specialty – she does go to some lengths to allow her characters to show multiple personality facets. Many of the figures in the novel are inspired by actual personages in the British dance world; Yuri Koszorz is a direct take-off of Rudolf Nureyev, and the author has dedicated the book to the legendary Ninette de Valois.

This is a novel in which nothing much happens; the characters are important mostly to themselves and their adventures are the small adventures of ordinary people, but as a simple story competently told it can be counted as one of Rumer Godden’s more satisfying minor novels.

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Breakfast With the Nikolides by Rumer Godden ~ 1942. This edition: Pan, 2002. Softcover.  ISBN: 0-330-48781-7. Includes an Introduction by Yvonne Roberts, and the short story A Red Doe. 213 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

Though frequently listed as one of Rumer Godden’s “children’s” books, Breakfast with the Nikolides is a decidedly adult novel, chock full of dark and difficult themes: sexual desire, frustration, betrayal, revenge, reconciliation. Written early in her long career, the fifth of her twenty-four novels, Godden remarked that though the book was received without much comment, it came very close to her personal goal of “truthful writing”.

This is one of the “Indian” novels, started in 1940 as Rumer, her two young daughters and their governess sailed back to India – where Rumer had already spent the majority of her life – to escape the potential German invasion of England at the start of World War II.

Inspired by Rumer’s experiences living in the rural Bengali area of India as the daughter of British Colonialists, the vivid depictions of the setting and supporting characters were drawn from first-hand observation and feel clear and true.

This was one of the novels Rumer Godden felt was “vouchsafed” to her – she drew a definite distinction between “a book written when you are looking for something to write, searching for a theme, and one that seems to arise of itself, demanding to be written.” Breakfast with the Nikolides was a book that demanded to be written, and though it seems at times the author is still working on clarifying her “voice”, on the whole it is a successful experiment.

In the small East Bengal town of Amorra, the Government Agricultural Farm flourishes under the guidance of English agriculturalist Charles Pool. Though he has lived and worked intimately with the local community, he still remains, after eight years, something of a mystery man. The assumption is that he is a bachelor of celibate habits, for he lives an exemplary life of dedication to his goal of converting the local farmers to his new and productive ideas, and he is a respected lecturer at the progressive agricultural college which has now been established at the farm.

One day Charles goes down to the jetty on the river to meet the paddle-wheel steamer, where he meets a beautiful woman and two young girls –  his wife Louise and their daughters. Louise, 11-year-old Emily and 8-year-old Binnie have travelled the long and arduous way from war-torn France where they had been living until forced to flee the German occupation.

Emily and Binnie are enthralled with their new environment; Emily in particular hopes that she will never have to leave. When her father, against her mother’s wishes, gives her a spaniel puppy, Don, this action precipitates a far-reaching set of events ending both in tragedy and elemental change for all of the protagonists.

Lovely Louise is a woman with some serious personal issues. Long estranged from her husband for reasons which we gradually get some clues about, she also has a very difficult relationship with her eldest daughter, whom she seems to misread at every turn. Despite Louise’s insistence that their unification as a family is only temporary, Charles and Emily begin to gradually build up a fragile relationship of trust and affection, which Louise openly resents. She is not looking for a reconciliation; rather she has turned to Charles as a temporary refuge until the war is over; she makes it clear that as soon as she can she will return with her daughters to “civilization”.

The spaniel Don becomes sick; Louise suspects rabies, and, without explanation and in an attempt to shelter her daughters from an emotional trauma and a real physical danger, sends the girls for an unexpected morning visit to a neighbouring family. “Breakfast with the Nikolides” is an unexpected treat, and the girls happily go off, unsuspecting of the drama that will ensue upon their return. (One of my personal small disappointments in this novel is the too-brief introduction to the rather intriguing Nikolides children, Jason and Alexandra, whom we tantalizingly meet for only a few moments before the story whirls on its way without them.)

The young college veterinarian, Narayan Das, becomes involved in the saga, as does one of the agricultural students, Anil, passionate and poetical son of a wealthy and influential Brahmin family.

As events unfold, we see that the marriage of Charles and Louise has foundered because of deep faults on both sides; neither party is innocent here, and though we never get the full details, we learn enough to sympathize even more deeply with the children of this tempestuous union. Godden concentrates to a great degree on showing us the feelings of Emily, who perhaps could be described as the chief character; another one of Godden’s “waifs in the storm” who suffer as the adults in their lives behave badly. Our heroine Emily weathers this episode of the familial storm, and, though emotionally battered and bruised, finds a certain peace of her own by the story’s end, though there are many loose ends left unravelled, just as in “real life”.

The place-portrait of the Indian village is also one of this book’s strengths; Godden’s intimate familiarity with the time and place she writes about is apparent in her clean yet detailed descriptions. Very nicely done.

This is a novel for mature teens and adults, who would best be able to appreciate what the author has presented here; I suspect a younger reader would soon lose interest.

I had to double-check the publication date; this novel has a very contemporary feel to it. Well worth reading, and a good companion piece to Godden’s other adult novels, which show a range of styles as she continually experimented with and honed her considerable craft.

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