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.