Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Review: STAYING ON, by Paul Scott
Tusker and Lucy Smalley are an elderly English couple living out their last days in the rural town of Pankot in India of the early 1970s. The novel opens: "When Tusker Smalley died of a massive coronary at approximately 9.30 a.m. on the last Monday in April 1972 his wife Lucy was out, having her white hair blue-rinsed and set in the Seraglio Room on the ground floor of Pankot's new five-storey glass and concrete hotel, the Shiraz."
This opening tells you everything and nothing. Tusker is dead, but we won't return to the reasons for his death until almost the very end of the novel. Right now we're seeing events through the eyes of Mr. Bhoolabhoy, manager of the Smith's Hotel, on whose property the Smalleys have lived for years. Minor figures in the British raj, the Smalleys decided to "stay on" in India after independence because they figured their meager means would afford them a better standard of living there than back home in England. By 1972 they have become stranded. Mr. Bhoolabhoy is another kind of post-independence figure, a figure of the rising Indian middle class. His wife owns the hotel and has bigger ambitions too. And those ambitions are about to clash with the Smalleys.
From this opening chapter the story goes back in time, to the events leading up to Tusker's death. We see the couple's deteriorating relationship, Lucy's weak striving for an independence of her own, Tusker's guilt over staying in India despite her, and their shrinking world of fellow British. Lucy gets a letter from a woman named Sarah (who figured prominently in Scott's Raj Quartet, to which this book is a kind of coda) asking would she, Lucy, agree to host a friend of hers who will be traveling in the area? Lucy is excited to have some connection to the old days, to England, to someone who remembers her, but the visit will lead to all kinds of problems, too.
I really loved this book. It's quiet and character-driven and the Smalleys aren't people you will necessary like (they are stodgy, stubborn and hold antiquated political and social beliefs) but they are also very human and real, and I felt compassion for them. The ending is nothing short of perfect as the circumstances around Tusker's death are revealed and Lucy finally gets that independence she wanted so badly. Just not the way she wanted. The book ends on a beautiful meditation on grief and loss and what comes after. It made the whole thing worthwhile. Staying On won the Booker Prize in 1977 and is a book I highly recommend, whether or not you've read the Raj Quartet.
It counts for the Complete Booker Challenge.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.