Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumer Godden ~ 1953. This edition: Reprint Society, 1955. Hardcover. 280 pages.
My rating: 8.5/10.
*****As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; As tumbled over rim in roundy wells Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
These lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins head the prologue of this disturbing and haunting story.
This vintage Godden novel was new to me. I recently read the first volume of Godden’s autobiography, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, and was intrigued by the account of Godden’s three years in retreat in the Kashmir hill country, initially with only her two young daughters and later joined by several other women and children. Kingfishers Catch Fire was inspired by this time, and though the author states that this novel is not autobiographical, many of the incidents are those that Godden herself experienced, living in the actual house Dilkusha, in the Kashmir hills, operating a herb farm and employing the local people in the enterprise.
In one of those satisfying occurrences of bookish serendipity, soon after I expressed a desire to find this novel, it came to me all by itself, and in the form I most enjoy – an older hardcover, in its original dust jacket. I had casually ducked into the Salvation Army store to give the book section a quick scan, and had cherry-picked a Rohinton Mistry paperpack (Tales from Firozsha Baag) out from among the mix of ex-bestsellers and inspirational religious books that fill the racks in this particular location. I was turning away to leave when something turquoise-blue and white caught my eye – a promising “older book” dust jacket peeking out from behind the fat paperbacks. My pulse quickened; after many years of second-hand book searching one seems to develop a sixth sense of when a find is at hand, and this time I was more than right – not only a good book, but the particular book recently on my mind. I gently pulled it out from the shelf, and there it was, in its gorgeous World Books (Reprint Society) zodiac-themed jacket. About as perfect as it gets!
The story is typical Rumer Godden fare. An Englishwoman living in India (Sophie Barrington-Ward, long separated from her husband and recently widowed) gets herself into an impossible situation, behaves badly, finds redemption and emerges changed for the better; all of the action witnessed and brought into critical focus through the eyes of a child, in this case the Sophie’s young daughter, 8-year-old Teresa. Like a stone thrown into still water, the ripples of each action spread far and touch things on all sides, with unintended and often tragic consequences.
When news of her husband’s death reaches her, Sophie and her two young children are living on a houseboat on the lake at Rawalpindi in the Kashmir region of what would be present-day Pakistan. At first she is conventionally sad but not particularly upset; after all, she has a comfortable private income and her widow’s pension will be coming now as well. She has made a rather unique life for herself where she is, rejecting the British-European social life of the region and instead fraternizing almost exclusively with the locals – the picturesque boatmen, vendors and shopkeepers – who see in Sophie a well-off patroness who spends generously and lives exclusively to please herself.
Sophie soon finds out that her husband has left huge debts; she manages to settle these but is left impoverished. Rather than returning to England in what she sees as defeat, Sophie ekes out an existence teaching “English to Hindu and Mohammedan ladies and Urdu to English people”. As the bitter winter goes on, Sophie falls ill and is taken in by the local Mission hospital. When she recovers, she decides to simplify her life even further, to “live local” as a peasant (better a “peasant” than a “poor white”, she tells herself), and moves into a tiny house farther up the mountain.
Sophie’s idea of living like a peasant clashes with the reality of the local population, who are truly poor. Her continual blunders lead to a tragic incident that brings her “simple life” dream crashing down. Her daughter Teresa is a hapless witness to Sophie’s decline into chaos, and is a key player in the climactic ending of the story.
Sophie does wake up from her dream; she does confront her weaknesses; she does at least begin to change, and by the end of the story we have come to view her with a certain admiration if not with whole-hearted affection. Sophie’s initial emotional neglect of Teresa and her younger brother Thomas (“Moo”) is a key factor in making her such an unlikeable protagonist; she is an egotistical reverse-snob who makes snap judgments based on what she’d wish people’s personalities to be, and she sticks firmly to those opinions, even while being repeatedly shown how wrong they are. Sophie’s progression from that person to someone much more unsure of herself is the real drama of the novel.
For a while near the end of the story I thought I was going to be disappointed in my author – it was all coming out a bit too pat – a white knight who has been lurking in the background the whole book reappears to “rescue” Sophie just as she is sorting things out for herself, and Sophie falls into his arms with relief, but Godden ultimately allows Sophie (and Teresa) to walk out of the book with head held high.
An ultimately satisfying story, though not what I would consider a comfort read; the windows it opens into human foolishness and frailty strike close to home, and we are very aware throughout that there is no such thing as a universally happy ending; the most any of us can hope for is reaching some sort of compromise with life, if we are indeed one of the lucky ones.
As always, beautiful descriptions of place; Rumer Godden paints word pictures like no other. The children, Teresa and Moo, are very sympathetically handled; Godden is ever firmly on the side of innocence, though she never hesitates to let her innocents suffer in the interest of moving the narrative along.
This is, in my opinion, one of Godden’s better novels.