Sunday, May 30, 2010

Matthew's Review - Heat and Dust - 1975

I'm on a bit of a British Raj kick right now. The next book I read in this particular theme is Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, which won the Booker Prize in 1975.

A young English woman in the present day (70's) goes to India in order to retrace the steps taken by her greataunt Olivia in the Twenties. Olivia's true story is enveloped by disgrace and shame, as she left her husband, a British man, for an Indian Nawab. While the narrator goes on a literal journey through modern day India, her figurative journey seems to mirror that of her greataunt, both of them seeking the truth about India, in all its mystery and otherness.

The structural setup of Heat and Dust is familiar to almost any reader at this point. Numerous films and books have been written about this idea of twinned self-discoveries. However, Heat and Dust was written at a time when the English were looking inwards, at their concepts of colonialism and the Jewel of the Empire.

Heat and Dust mirrors that introspection in a metaphorical way. Both Olivia and the narrator of the novel are stand-ins for a British identity, similar but not the same. Notice that I didn't say "for the British identity", as both leads of the novel are distinctly female.

Concepts of motherhood, widowhood, and womanhood are absolutely central to this text. Without going into spoilers, the journeys that both women take involve the absolute differing ideas of motherhood that the British and the Indian have.

Going back to the structural familiarity of the novel, I can't say that this detracts from the book in the slightest. While I was wise to the tricks up this novel's sleeve, I was still enchanted by the descriptions of India then, and India now (or, from my perspective, then as well).

Combine this novel with The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, this could be an excellent historiography of India, across multiple generations.

While this novel does some excellent things with theme, image and structure, Jhabvala's prose is understated, plain and never really dazzled me. I felt that I had enough information from description and that was it. It's almost as if Jhabvala felt that her mastery of imagery was enough to float the novel. Unfortunately it is not. Quality of prose is paramount. No matter how clever one's metaphors are, stilted and weak prose can underwhelm a reader's experience. Such is the case.

Jhabvala's understated prose almost lends the novel a screenplay-esque feeling, foreshadowing, no doubt, her emergence as a primary screenwriter for Merchant-Ivory Productions.

Heat and Dust is a great novel, marred only by a recalcitrance for exciting prose, which no doubt the author is capable of. I very much enjoyed the architecture of the novel, even though it's a trick done to death. Any interested readers of India would be greatly pleased to read Heat and Dust.

1 comment:

  1. Isn't it wonderful? I love this book and there is a film as well which I have heard good things about.

    thanks indeed for posting