I chose this novel because it was slim, and bright yellow, not because I recognised the author. I wanted something on a completely different track to the local author’s we’d been studying in the reading group. Good as they were, I would need something different to unwind with. Breakfast with the Nickolides looked exotic.
I didn’t read the blurb on the back. At some point I’d put this on my shelf, therefore, someone or something had suggested that it was worth reading.
It is. Godden was a stylist. Her writing, apparently simple and straightforward, is deftly organized. Here’s the opening scene:
It was in the little agricultural town of Amorra, East Bengal, India.
In the night Emily Pool’s small black spaniel, Don, slipped down the stairs. He ran into the garden and out through the gate into the College grounds where the lawns lay smoothly between the buildings and the trees and ended in grass beside the tank. He ran with curious intentness, his head down, his wide ears brushing either side of his hot serious face, and very soon his ears were soaked with dew and stuck with twigs and ends of grass.
He was hot. He lay down and panted; but in a moment, pricked with some intense discomfort, he was up to run again, round and round without any point or reason. There was nothing he wanted, but he could not be still, he could not feel or behave like himself at all.
How easily my eye slipped down the page, the images building in my imagination. The location is set in a sentence, but what is the significance of Emily Pool’s black spaniel? Who is Emily Pool, and since we have her full name, why no description? Why is the first short chapter (a bare page and a half long) focused on her dog, Don, and his odd behaviour?
In chapter two we get the first of the human characters introduced smoothly, with just enough back-story to give context. Charles Pool, the man who set up the Government Farm at Amorra, with ‘its colonnaded buildings, it’s straight well-sanded roads with railings that led through model fields’, has a mission to modernize the traditional agriculture of India. It’s through his achievements that we see countryside and its people as well as himself and his lifestyle.
Only Charles Pool knew how big it really was; he knew exactly, because he had made it. He had pushed it out and across the plain, patch after patch, crop after crop; and it had not been easy…in eight years the Farm had become an Industrial and Research Centre, with an annual exhibition; it had a Stud Farm and a Veterinary Research Anex…and three hundred students who came from all parts of the province to study livestock, crop-husbandry, bacteriology, agricultural botany, mycology and entomology.
The essence of normality is conveyed even as the plot shifts forward, and we, and his neighbours discover that Charles has a secret.
One morning Charles went down to the jetty to meet the steamer; and on the steamer was his wife, and not only his wife – there were two children of perhaps eleven and eight.
This is the point where the careful process of revelations begin.
Where had this family come from? It appeared that they had been driven out of Paris by the war, and escaped by Lisbon to the Canaries, where they had taken a ship round the Cape to Colombo, and another from Colombo to Calcutta
So that’s one question answered, but perhaps it’s not the whole explanation for where this family came from. It leaves us with more questions, such as, ‘What were they doing there?’ and, ‘Why have they come back after eight years without Charles mentioning them?’
Mysteries, the small, domestic intricacies of marriage, the cultural chasms of that time and place, are revealed slowly, one layer at a time. Don’t expect a comfortable read. This is a novel of subtleties. Godden didn’t take any easy ways out with this story, though there were plenty of opportunities when she could have.
There is violence at the heart of the story, but it’s implied, and arguably the more powerful for that. This is an understated novel. At one point, as I was reading it, I found myself wondering if it couldn’t have been reduced to a short story. Only in the hours after I’d finished reading, when my subconscious was still processing the implications, did I realize that it could only have been a novel. Changing one word might have spoiled the carefully drawn and balanced parallels.
This, I think, is writing to aspire to.