Monday, March 7, 2011

{review} kingfishers catch fire

Rumer Godden Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953)

Kingfishers Catch Fire

This is my second Rumer Godden read, after the excellent The Greengage Summer {reviewed HERE}. I'm a bit baffled about what to make of Kingfishers Catch Fire. I suspect, (a) that it has aged quite badly and, (b) that quite a heavy lacquer of political correctness stands between its opinions of the native population of Kashmir and my full appreciation of Godden's excellent writing. The protagonist of KCF is Sophie Barrington-Ward, a thirty-five year old widow. Sophie is one of the most irritatingly selfish characters to grace a page. She drags her children Teresa and 'Moo' to a remote spot in troubled Kashmir where she believes that she can live cheaply. Everyone warns her against her romantic vision of a simple life in the desperately poor mountain-town:
'Sophie is nice to scold because she never answers back,'... Aunt Rose had once said, 'and nasty to scold because she never takes any notice.' Sophie took no notice now.
'It's too far,' Dr. Ruth Glenister, the head doctor at the Mission, told her.
'Your Mission ladies go further than that,' argued Sophie.
'They have the protection of the Mission,' said Dr. Glenister.
'We shall protect ourselves,' said Sophie confidently.
'The people won't know what to make of you,' said Sister Locke, the senior Mission sister.
'They soon will,' said Sophie.
It was not only the Europeans who advised against it. 'You may lose everything you have,' said her Kashmiri merchant friend, Profit David.
'We haven't anything,' said Sophie.
'But we have,' Teresa wanted to cry. They had some precious things, doubly precious to Teresa because through all the family changes these few had endured... Teresa could not bear the thought of losing any of them. 'Don't let's go there,' begged Teresa.
Even the Pundit Pramatha Kaul who owned Dilkhush was worried though he was anxious to let the house. 'Am I handing you over to the hounds and thieves?' he asked.
'If we were rich,' said Sophie, 'if we were like most Europeans and Americans who come to Kashmir, then there might be trouble.'
To the Pundit, Sophie was precisely like any other European or American, only more friendly; the friendliness alarmed him. 'These people are poor and simple . . .' he began, but Sophie interrupted him.
'We shall be poor and simple too,' she said with shining eyes.
'But, madam, the peasants are rapacious . . . '
To that Sophie would not listen. Like many people there were some words about which she was sentimental; one of these was 'peasant'.
'How picturesque they are!' said Sophie admiringly.
'And dirty,' said Teresa. It was true. They were very dirty.

Of course, it all goes spectacularly wrong. Sophie attempts to help the poor villagers (and, primarily, herself) but blunders into a village feud about which she remains almost totally in the dark. Her children have a far better grasp of the realities of their isolated position and suffer considerably at the hands of the junior members of the feuding families. 
'But they are children,' said Sophie, again and again. 'What could they do to you?'
Sophie fails to see how seriously her well-meaning projects are alienating her family from safety and bringing personal danger to herself. The word that she herself uses of her nature is 'insouciant':
'Careless and indifferent'. It was not that things did not go wrong. They did, very often, though she could never see why. 'But what did I do?' she would ask when they had. 'I didn't mean it to turn out like that,' and how bitter was her remorse, though, of course, if the remorse because too much to bear in one place she could always go somewhere else.
It is possible to be too free-spirited. Sophie's attitude to Teresa, too, is insouciant. Teresa is 'stolid' - and timid and 'tiresome' - while 'Moo' has 'feelings'. One cannot help but note that the boy Moo is the favoured child. 

A sense of menace permeates the narrative, made more so by Sophie's inability to see the dangers around her. Even when she suffers a dose of poisoning at the hands of her household staff she shrugs off the danger. And then Teresa goes missing... 

The growing feeling that doom is imminent is so well done in this book. The writing is excellent. Godden shakes up our expectations with her sympathetically drawn yet unsympathetic heroine and her poor household staff who, for the most part, do not possess the stereotypical hearts of gold of the faithful retainers of morally improving Raj fiction. Will Sophie redeem herself or has her selfishness, under the guise of free-spiritedness, destroyed her family beyond repair? 
Sophie found Teresa's hand under the blankets; the other, with the fingers broken, was strapped across her chest; the chill and limpness of the small hand she knew so, well, that she had often held so carelessly or shaken off, seemed to creep slowly over Sophie and into her heart.
'Is she much hurt?' she had asked...
The setting of Kingfishers Catch Fire is based on Godden's "three years' living, thinking and perhaps dreaming in Kashmir." The descriptions of the landscape are quite beautiful, particularly those of the chenar trees - the 'chinar' or Planus orientalis (Oriental plane) - which features on the local handicrafts of Kashmir. There is no question that Godden's reinforcing of the the external romance of the locale heightens the emotional effect of the scenes of shocking poverty and filth of the village. This juxaposition of beauty and ugliness plays through the text: when Sophie is most attuned to the beauty of the evening, it is because she is suffering the effects of cannabis poisoning. I find that Godden keeps me in a constant state of shock - and perhaps that is both her strength and, unfortunately, why I remained so ambivalent about this book.

Rating: 6/10. That's for its appeal to me. It's a good book.

If you liked this... I've now got my hands on The Peacock Spring and An Episode of Sparrows, so I'm certainly not giving up on Rumer Godden.

The Peacock Spring An Episode of Sparrows (New York Review Children's Collection)

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