Thursday, February 05, 2009

More Rumer Godden

This winter I’ve begun to read Rumer Godden again.

I rejected her many years ago, in my late teens, after I began to concentrate on the classics. Godden wasn’t good enought. Reading in bed after a day of work was too good to waste on pop fiction when I could be reading Dickens or Austen. (I’d Rather Be Reading Dickens: the T-shirt.)

I obviously hadn’t read Godden’s India novels.

Breakfast with the Nikolides and Kingfishers Catch Fire are both minor classics. Kingfishers is a little better than minor.

Kingfishers Catch Fire, an autobiographical novel based on Godden’s experiences as an impoverished mother of two children who moves to Kashmir to “live simply,” is a beautiful, moving, and symmetrically perfect gem, a poetic, sometimes comic narrative in which Godden contrasts the relative meanings of poverty to an English family and Indian villagers. Painted against a gorgeous landscape, described in colorful, piercing detail of sights and sounds, the novel delineates the misunderstandings and resentment catalyzed when the rebellious, hip mother intrudes on village life and transgresses social barriers without understanding the traditions and hierarchy dictated by pride and poverty.

In Breakfast with the Nikolides, the action revolves around the death of a dog.

When Louise Pool and two daughters return to India after eight years in France, Charles, still at odds with Louise, tries to get to know his children. He gives a dog to Emily. The dog comes down with rabies, and as Louise recognizes the symptoms, she hysterically demands that they put down the dog; she screams until she gets her way, though Charles and the young veterinarian, Dr. Das, are more conservative about the diagnosis.

The family is shattered by Louise’s actions. The children have been away at breakfast with the Nikolides. The dog’s death is a trauma, and Emily will not forgive the mother. The dog’s death also has ramifications for a widening circle, including Dr. Das, who has struggled into the middle class, and his friend, Anil, a Brahmin.

Of course it is Godden's elegant style that makes the books. But the elaborate structure underlying the style is worth studying, too.

I can remember how dismayed and dumbfounded I was when a teacher friend told me Rumer Godden was her favorite writer.

Now I respect her for standing up for this undervalued writer.


Ellen said...

It's a beautiful cover and you make it sound appealing. I know I like Anglo-Indian novels very much. I find the lifestyle or conventions of this culture lends itself perfectly to what novels do best.

I keep meaning to read a slender novel by an Indian woman whose name I'd have to look up -- best sellers.


Mad Housewife said...

Dear Ellen,

Kingfishers Catch Fire reminds me slightly of some of Ruth Prawer jhabvala books, so this is a case of "If you like Jhabvala, you would probably like Godden." Not all of Godden's books are equal--but The River, for instance, was made into a beautiful film by Renoir.