Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott


People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Bev.

This book took a long time to get going. And it was not a quick read by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it was taking long enough that I had to adjust how much I was trying to read in a day, so I didn't keep getting frustrated by never getting near my goal. Despite that, I kept reading, and it was never that I wasn't enjoying it. Just that it was slow, and incredibly looping, moving around and around the crux of the novel without ever quite getting close to it until the end.

Having read the whole thing, I appreciate that as a technique. It makes perfect sense for this particular story, to get the whole thing from so many different angles before we actually find out what happened. However, as I was reading, there were definite moments of just wanting Scott to get on with it.

This is definitely a book for the patient. If you are, there are rewards, it will just take a while to get there.

This is, as the book tells us, the story of a rape. But more specifically, it's about the fault lines that that rape exposes in British and Indian culture in India just before Independence and Partition. The rape itself is omnipresent in the book, without ever being luridly dwelled upon. Instead, it's people's reactions that come to the fore, the assumptions about the white woman who had been attacked, assumptions about her attackers, reactions from Indians and British alike, particularly as the case starts to not go in the way that the British will expect.

The story is about Daphne Manners, a young British orphan come to India to live with her aunts (one biological, one affectionate), and Hari Kumar, an Indian orphan brought up in Britain who is now discovering what the colour of his skin does to his Britishness. Daphne is raped. Many assume Hari was one of the perpetrators. Daphne refuses to testify as to the identity of any of them, and we do not know why until near the very end of the book, although there are certainly suppositions.

It's a complex book, and certainly not only from the colonial point of view. Scott does a really excellent job of layering viewpoints, British and Indian alike, and embodying each of them as a person expressing their true and clear vision of how the world actually is, and then undercutting that with someone else's remembrances of those days shortly thereafter.

I was incredibly intrigued by trying to figure out who the narrator is, but if it was ever revealed, I didn't catch it. It's someone trying to reconstruct the story, long after it happened, going to colonial officials, Indian newspaper editors, family members of both young people. The book is heartbreaking in showing how even those who want to look past the colour barrier in India find it unofficially as well as officially enforced. (Neither is the book simplistic in looking at that - the section of Daphne reflected on Hari and both what she thought his Indianness meant to her at the time, and what she later realized about her implicit assumptions about him and herself is quietly difficult.)

This is not an easy book, and it's particularly not a quick-moving book. But I enjoyed the multiple viewpoints and the refusal to find simple answers.

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