Every so often, I crave a book about India. I think that subconsciously I'm trying to re-live A Suitable Boy, for me the most perfect novel ever written. I loved that book, from the opening scene to the last. And it gave me a thirst for more about that extraordinary country, although I have yet to find another novel that comes even close to Vikram Seth's.
I remember my mother watching the television series of The Jewel in the Crown when I was small, though I never saw it myself. And despite the almost offputtingly hideous new covers Random House have seen fit to dress Paul Scott's Raj Quartet in, I decided to give it a go.
It started well, despite its sordid subject matter: the rape of a white woman by a gang of Indian men, at a time when Ghandi's actions were throwing the politics of Indian rule into chaos. These two tenets parallel each other throughout the story, which is told in various voices, each chapter being a different characters' version of the same events.
I loved the first chapter, Miss Crane's story. I came close to 'feeling' India in the pages, as I did when I first read A Suitable Boy, although this is a more British India, and one less rich for that.
The second chapter, however, lost me a little. It was all over the place, and hard to piece together. Was this an intentional evocation of Lili Chatterjee's character, or simply a mis-written section of the book?
Sister Ludmila saved it for me though - the third chapter, her story, was wonderful. The plot skipped along in her short, clipped sentences, and again, one of the many Indias breathed with life in her words.
From here, it came and went in waves. The military side of it bored me a little, though it picked up again for the final, and most pertinent, narrative, that of the young woman, Daphne Manners, who was raped.
It's a clever book, political yet plot-driven, exciting yet didactic. I have not, however, been compelled to read the second book in the quartet, though I'll not altogether count out a return to its world. I might sum it up as inconsistently excellent.