The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott

There has never been a more picked-up-at-random than this book.  Basically I was at Bongs & Noodles before the storm, trying to pick out a good hurricane book.  And I kind of wanted to get Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I had already read it.  And I kind of wanted to get The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro, because of how haunting I remember Never Let Me Go was, but I felt doubtful about it.  So I sat on a chair gazing at my options, and then I realized that what I really wanted was to read The Far Pavilions again for the first time.  Darling Far Pavilions!  Or I would have settled for Shadow of the Moon.  I greatly wished for some sort of machine that would have allowed me to revert to my pre-reading-Far-Pavilions self.  (Or my pre-Diana-Wynne-Jones self.  Then I could have looked at my bookshelves and had all these brilliant new books to read.)

Anyway, that was impossible, so instead of that I went and put “the raj fiction” into the Bongs & Noodles computer search thing, and it pulled up The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott, and I blew thirty-five dollars on the first two of the four.  Essentially because, you know, the Raj is interesting, and because I just wanted something long to get me through the hurricane, and because I figured if I hated it I could always return it before the two weeks was up.

(I hate the new B&N return policy.)

I actually really, really, really liked it.  It’s a story about stuff that happens towards the end of the Raj.  Basically, a British girl has an Indian lover, and she gets raped by a bunch of not-her-lover Indians.  And that bit of plot is dealt with pretty thoroughly, but what I liked about the book, actually, was the way Paul Scott writes.  He spends the bulk of the book looping around the primary events, having all these different narrators tell different bits of the story, and they’re all telling completely different bits.  Compared to all the background you get, the bones of the story – how Daphne & Hari fall in love, and what happens That Night – only takes up a few pages.  And Mr. Scott didn’t do the looping and swirling in a boring way.  It was all very interesting, with many, many people saying what they thought about The Incident, and also what they thought about the Raj anyway, generally.  Very, very cool.

I wish I knew more about the Raj, because I had a bit of a hard time with some of the politics, not knowing the facts of what was happening at this time.  It was interesting that Mr. Scott wrote almost entirely from the point of view of the British characters – I guess you could see it as him being racist and only giving voices to the Brits, but as a white girl who writes, I wouldn’t feel incredibly comfortable speaking for people whose experiences I could never, ever have had, so maybe that’s how he felt too.

Salman Rushdie was angry at this book because Daphne Manners gets raped, and she’s white, and he thought it wasn’t a good metaphor for the violence Britain was doing to India.  Which I can see.  And I realize that Mr. Scott was saying many other things besides just “A white girl got raped by brown people” when he wrote this story.  But still, there was a fair bit of classism to the whole affair, I thought, messily entangled with the kind of unrecognized racism that’s addressed throughout the book, and it was not very nice to read.

In addition, I found it unsettling because she – this is a spoiler though you’ll probably have figured it out by the time she explains just what happened – gets attacked and raped by a bunch of Indian hooligans when they spot her having sex with her (Indian) lover Hari.  And that was scary and I don’t like rape scenes.

All of which is to say, I enjoyed the bulk of this book enough to think it worth my while to read the second one.  I am interested in what Paul Scott has to say.  It is very difficult to deal fairly with racism and oppression when you are liberal-minded but still, inevitably, one of the oppressors.  As this is something that troubles me (a lot), I enjoy to read books that deal with it.

An Unkindness of Ravens, Ruth Rendell

I confess.  I got this one because it has the same title as the book Lucas writes on One Tree Hill.  And you know what I realized when I was composing this review in my head while washing dishes?  I realized that Lucas’s book title?  Ravens is meant to refer to his basketball team, the Tree Hill Ravens.  Which kind of makes me want to gouge out my eyes.  Like, bad enough he’s written a pretentious book full of pretentious sentences and given it a pretentious title, and bad enough they’re pretending that this idiotic autobiographical book about Lucas and all his closest friends is such a masterpiece.  But see, I actually felt better about the title when I thought it was an abstract title that was with the symbols and everything – pretentious, yes, because it had nothing to do with anything, but I could deal with it.  Now I have realized that it is meant to be clever, I indeed wish centuries of stupid hair on Chad Michael Murray.  (Pointless wish that I know will be granted.)  Plus I feel resentful that I didn’t notice before, because my sister and I watched One Tree Hill all this past season, and I feel like we really missed out on some excellent mockery opportunities with that title.

Well, regardless.  Ruth Rendell’s book is completely unrelated to that.  It’s a totally acceptable title for this book.  Inspector Wexford gets asked by his neighbor to investigate what has happened to her husband Rodney Williams.  At first he thinks Rodney’s up and left her, but then there are all these mysterious circumstances that induce him to change his mind, like a bag of Rodney’s stuff turning up all abandoned, and them finding his body all drugged and stabbed.  And other people are getting stabbed by crazy feminists.  With ravens.

(Plot summary is one of my best skills.)

This book was more engaging than Vanity Dies Hard, less than Anna’s Book.  The plot went along nicely, but some things were a little weirdly resolved, and there weren’t any clever little linguistic tricks going around either.  (Like, oo, when Tom Marvolo Riddle rearranged to spell I am Lord Voldemort – that was my favorite bit of Chamber of Secrets which otherwise I don’t like a bit and I haven’t even bothered to replace my copy now that the spine’s all broken.) I wasn’t as interested in the characters, and I was displeased and surprised that Wexford – all perceptive with the incest thing – didn’t figure out a hundred pages earlier that when the girl said “those two women” she wasn’t talking about the mothers.  Because I knew straight away that she meant the daughters.  And I know that may be not a fair criticism since I’m of a different generation, but still it was frustrating.

I will say this for An Unkindness of Ravens.  I was thinking about the crazy feminists, trying to decide what I thought about her portrayal of them, and it got me thinking about many things regarding women and oppression, and I had a Total Epiphany about the story I’m writing.  It was one of those times when you’re writing a story and you realize something that’s happened in the story without your noticing, and all the indications for it are already there.  Because I had this epiphany, and I went back and reexamined my story, and I was thinking, Oh stupid Jenny, this element is already there, and it seems impossible that you didn’t notice this plot thread that was happening right under your nose.  I seriously only had to add about four paragraphs to the whole story to make the change.  So hurrah for An Unkindness of Ravens.  I am in its debt.