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Monday, 28 March 2011

Book Review: Staying On by Paul Scott

This was another book I bought during my undergraduate degree (for my Colonialism and Post-Colonialism unit, I believe) and never read for whatever reason. Looking at it now, I can speculate on one probable reason: on the copy I own the female character is named on the back of the book as 'Lily' when you discover on the first page that she's actually called 'Lucy'. Despite the fact this is a publishing error, I think it had a psychological effect. Hence I waited four years to read the book.

Staying On is the story of a couple, Tusker and Lucy Smalley, who remained in India after Tusker retired from the British Army. They live in a small town called Pankot and, it's no spoiler to say so, Tusker is discovered dead on the first page. From there, the novel meanders backwards in time a little and unravels the events and relationships in the months before his death. Towards the beginning of the book it can be a little difficult to put your finger on where you are in time but this soon settles down. Also, don't think that the novel focuses solely on these few months: Scott's characters do that ever-human thing of thinking about their pasts, Lucy Smalley in particular. You honestly do get the feeling you've lived a life with these people.

There are so many strands to this book that it's impossible to separate half of them. Characters like Mr and Mrs Bhoolabhoy, the Smalley's landlords, are faithfully (sometimes even painfully) represented. Mrs Bhoolabhoy is a larger-than-life harridan and dictator, mercilessly ruling her business and her husband, a mild-mannered Christian who loves his little church and his hotel. Mr Bhoolabhoy serves as one of the viewpoint characters of the novel, along with Lucy Smalley and Ibrahim, the Smalley's servant. All of them are easily distinguishable and amusing in their own way.

I haven't read any other reviews of Staying On but I can imagine some of the criticism. Not much happens! Well, maybe that's true. After Tusker's body is found in the opening pages the climax of the novel has already been revealed - what's left to know? I think that's a little short-sighted. What Scott does, to great effect, is invite you into Pankot and into the lives of Tusker, Lucy, Mr Bhoolabhoy and Ibrahim. There is never the sense that he's embellishing for literary merit: the novel feels truthful and authentic. I trusted Scott as I trusted George Orwell when reading Burmese Days: I felt like I was being transported to another country but without cliché-ridden prose and character representation. You can say this for Scott and Orwell: you certainly know they've been there.

Staying On won the Booker Prize in 1977. Scott is perhaps most famous for the quartet of novels beginning with The Jewel in the Crown but many critics seem to regard Staying On as his best novel. Having only read this one, I can't comment on that. However, I can say that the story lingered in my mind for days afterwards, not an easy feat in an age of instant distraction and social media. I would wholeheartedly recommend it.

The book can be purchased here.


Annie said...

I read this after having seen the televised version of 'The Jewel in the Crown' and then reading the books themselves - which means it's a long time since I read it. However, I remember enjoying it very much indeed and the more so because I could see it in the light of the events that precede it and which are described in the quartet. Pankot is one of the settings for the early work and it was just like being taken back to a place I already new and loved. I would really recommend reading the earlier works and also getting hold of a copy of the television version. It was one of the very best serialisations.

CharmedLassie said...

Just what I need - more books to read! I'll add them to the list, especially because you make it sound so appealing. I think the serialisation is something I've had the opportunity to watch in the past and just didn't think it interested me. Reading 'Staying On' seems to have changed that!