Sunday, May 23, 2010

Staying On

Here is another example of an author being awarded the Booker for a novel not their most famous. I encountered this first with V. S. Naipaul and In a Free State (which I hated. A lot), and with Kingsley Amis and The Old Devils. Paul Scott is more famous and heralded for his Raj Quartet, none of which I've read, but in 1978, he was presented with the Booker Prize for Staying On.

Tusker and Lucy Smalley are literally the last of the British Raj to stay on in India, and it's 1972, and they are both in their seventies. They live in a medium quality hotel being physically overshadowed by a better bigger hotel, which threatens to buy out the little hotel. Tusker is in ill health and ill temper, and Lucy feels empty and unfulfilled. This is the story of their last days together in India.

I certainly did not know what to expect with this novel. I was sure it was going to be a mixture of present day (1972) and flashbacks to the thirties and forties, Tusker's heyday in the Raj. However, that was not the case. Instead of retreading ground that he spent over 2000 pages doing, Scott chose to focus on what the end result is.

This is 200 pages of the couple, their servant, the married couple that owns the little hotel, and a couple other Indians living together, having conversations, arguments, tender moments. This is 200 pages of very minute social observation, but always with an extremely subtle and deft hand. Never did I feel that Scott was pointing to something excrutiatingly obvious.

Scott's prose is so clear, his dialogue rich, and his control over the story is fantastic. However, the lack of specific plot momentum sort of hinders this. This isn't a page-turner. It is a slow and methodical autopsy of a dying breed.

Apparently it's also a comic novel, but I never really laughed. The humour just didn't do it for me.

But these are minute problems. Overall, I enjoyed the book, and it made me want to read his Raj Quartet immediately. I have spoken of this theme numerous times on my blog, but really, the whole point of this challenge is to read different authors I would never normally expose myself to.

Staying On is an excellent novel written by a professional. It has great characters, clear coherent prose and structure, and it's consistently subtle. Fans of British or Indian history will have a great time with this.


Laura said...

Another excellent review! I loved what you called, "very minute social observation, but always with an extremely subtle and deft hand."

Oh -- and I also hated In a Free State. A lot !!

matthew. said...

I thought In a Free State was just so scattered and unfocused. Looking at the shortlisted books from that year, it was like the prize was being given to the author, rather than the book in question. That's depressing.

I'm afraid to read any more Naipaul just because I don't want to waste any more of my precious time.