My rating: 6.5/10. Not bad. Decidedly better than the author’s parallel book Cromartie v. The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India, which I read and reluctantly panned a few weeks ago.
Kirkus sums it up succinctly, in the June, 1991 review. Major plot spoiler in this review, by the way.
They don’t tend to write like this anymore, perhaps with good reason, but nonetheless the latest from Godden, unabashedly sentimental, is an entertaining if nostalgic read.
Patna Hall, a popular hotel on the Coromandel coast of southern India, is owned and run by Auntie Sanni, an Anglo-Indian whose family has been there for generations. Auntie Sanni, a stereotype like all the characters here, is a wise and wonderful old woman who knows exactly what to do with misbehaving guests and servants. In the week the novel covers, a party of scholarly American women, a British honeymoon couple, a British diplomat and his wife, a journalist, a mysterious unattached woman, and the managers of a local political campaign are all guests.
The hotel, right on the beach, where the waves are strong and the sea shark- infested, becomes the stage for the unfolding drama with parts for everyone, including the servants, a donkey, and an elephant. It is soon apparent to all–but especially to Auntie Sanni and Sir John and Lady Fisher, the diplomats–that the young leads, honeymooners Mary and Blaise, are having problems. Mary, entranced with the hotel and all things Indian, gets involved in the political campaign and is especially drawn to the candidate, handsome English-educated Krishnan, who is everything that snobby and insensitive husband Blaise is not. The campaign has its ups and downs as Mary gets closer to Krishnan–which is terrific because they are meant for each other–a(highlight the rest of this section to reveal spoiler)nd as poor Blaise, obviously doomed, conveniently exits in a nasty accident just in time for Auntie Sanni to get the hotel ready for the next week’s guests.
Godden’s lively narrative and her vivid descriptions of the people, places, and customs of a country she loves are more than fair compensation for dated style and stock characters.
I’m rather sorry to say that the only surprise here was which of the characters was doomed; I initially had picked the l(highlight to reveal my choice if you so wish) lovely young Indian hotel manager Kuku as the expendable, but I was wrong.
All of the stock characters from a Godden Indian novel are here, the only ones missing are nuns. We have a young, emotionally mismatched married couple, an intellectual and physically beautiful young man, a sexy, sultry young Indian woman (sometimes she’s Eurasian), precocious children, personable animals, worldly-wise observers – in this case an older Anglo-Indian couple and the omniscient Auntie Sanni – and last, but definitely not least, a sensually rich setting.
The setting is, as always in a Godden tale, almost a character in its own right. Godden’s sharp observational skills and her stellar descriptive talents are put to good use here: the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of this beautifully depicted corner of the world are the best part of this otherwise rather unremarkable story.
This was one of the last novels in Godden’s long list, and, in company with the others of this winding-down period of the writer’s career, is broadly sketched with less of the care and detail of some of her earlier masterpieces. It also has more of an upbeat, consciously humorous tone than some of the older books, especially regarding the shenanigans which the political combatants get up to – a vow of silence, a rally prank involving old umbrellas to discomfit a rival candidate – and even the climactic tragedy is presented with a farcical twist.
Loved the cover illustration, especially the illustrative references on the back, which the reader will appreciate much more deeply after completing the book.
Recommended for Godden fans rounding out their collections, and for “light” reading. No emotional challenges or deeply moving characters here, but the writing itself is more than adequate, and sometimes very good indeed.