Slapstick, sadness and a blue rinse in India

Book review: Staying on by Paul Scott

COMEDY and tragedy have always been the closest of relations, and this novel epitomises their kinship. Full of black humour, it is one of the saddest novels – if not the saddest – I have ever read.

Lucy and Tusker Smalley stayed on in India after the country gained its independence in 1947, not through her choosing but his. She, significantly, learnt where she was to spend the rest of her life only when it was too late – after her husband had made the life-changing decision unilaterally.

The narrative unfolds entirely in flashback after we learn in the opening line that Tusker has died of a heart attack, brought on by reading a letter, it transpires, sent by their landlords –  Mr and Mrs Bhoolabhoy, who own the neighbouring hotel.

The bickering of each married couple, the larger-than-life Lila Bhoolabhoy’s dramatics, Tusker’s stubbornness, the characters’ idiosyncrasies, such as Lucy’s treasuring her remaining packets of blue rinse from England, make for a comical, entertaining read.

Their servant Ibrahim’s understanding of the Smalleys’ relationship, his ability to predict their foibles and his adoption of quaint English turns of phrase provide more amusement.

The Bhoolabhoys’ relationship, lopsided as it is, is full of slapstick, yet Mr Bhoolabhoy’s plight mirrors and exacerbates Lucy’s own: belittled, bullied and patronised by his wife, he too lives partly in his imagination.

But behind the comedy is the portrait of a woman stripped of any hope of ever having any determination over the rest of her life. You could even consider Scott an early feminist.

The comic effects accentuate Lucy’s plight all the more starkly in the latter chapters, as events career towards Tusker’s demise.

Lucy – variously referred to as Memsahib, Lucy Mem and Mrs Smalley – has been trapped by her husband’s monumental decision, years earlier, to stay on in the country, leaving her effectively with less control over her life than the servants over theirs.

Scott’s psychological perception is acute throughout: Lucy, who has “never received a love letter in her life”  is convinced that at some point her husband underwent a “personality change”, perhaps because this is an easier explanation for her than accepting how the romance between them has long since died.

Committed nonetheless to a life and lifestyle not necessarily of her choosing, she makes the best of it, for which you have to admire her. Her loneliness and her naturally optimistic nature lead her to perpetually live life in the future: in her head, she is continually making plans and giving herself little treats to look forward to.

She seizes on the tiniest scrap of communication with people from home, England, to develop friendships. Her buoyancy even verges on naivety, until the moment when Tusker’s increasing sullen short-sightedness drive her to strike out and start doing things her own way.

It’s not that Tusker is ever hostile, merely that he takes his wife for granted, and in this way their marriage has trundled on for years, slowly growing devoid of communication. (Tusker’s favourite sayings are “ha!” and grunts.) He embarrasses her in social situations, such as becoming covered in coloured powder at a party when he plays with children (he is “a gesticulating clown”), then, as she somehow predicted he would, causing a scene by falling ill.

And yet, for all that, each in their own way does undoubtedly love the other, if only out of their long interdependency.

Because of the flashback nature of the narrative, occasionally the order of events is a little unclear, but this is insignificant when set against the tragic drama.

Close to the end, superbly blending pathos and comic absurdity, Lucy learns of Tusker’s fatal heart attack while she is under a hairdryer having had her hair blue-rinsed and set. However predictable, the news will come as a bitter blow. For all his faults, Tusker was the only thing Lucy had, her only remaining comfort.

And yet, Scott holds out a tiny hope for her: the possibility that she might be able to scrape together enough money to return to England.

The setting may be peculiar to post-colonial India but the relationships and psychological acuity portrayed are universal. Gentle, subtle and touching, this is a superb novel that richly deserved its 1977 Booker win and still deserves a reading today.


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