Posts Tagged ‘Anglo-India’

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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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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