Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux

The book had sat on my shelf, puzzingly unread, for 13 years.

And then we went to Hong Kong on holiday and “Kowloon Tong” went along too.

Reading a book about the place where you are staying is always fun, with the added piquancy of recognising names and places.  This is a wonderful read in any case, but reading it in situ was marvellous.

The novel is set in the last year of British colonial rule in Hong Kong, before the 1997 handover to China.  Or. as Mrs. Betty Mullard scathingly calls it, “the Chinese Takeaway.”

Betty and her 43 year old, unmarried, balding son Bunt are British, trapped in a damp, colonial time-warp.  They loathe most things Chinese, especially the food, have never bothered to visit, and aren’t remotely curious about so doing.  They lead a predictable, dull, uneventful life in Albion Cottage, looked after by Wang their silent servant, and the colour and noise and smells and politics of China and Hong Kong pass them by.

As the handover date looms ever closer, a mysterious Mr. Hung shows up and almost without their realising it, he has bought their factory.

Money makes Betty happier, and she initially takes quite a shine to the well-spoken Mr. Hung.  Bunt is less convinced, and as he realises his days in the colony, and at the helm of Imperial Stitching, are numbered, his normally well-planned, uneventful life descends into a vortex of horror and fear and – surprisingly – love.

The culture clash between The East and the Mullards is sharply drawn.  The increasing air of threat and menace that hangs over the book is superbly described, and by the end, I was turning the pages as quickly as I could to find out what happened, and then felt saddened that this marvellous book had ended.

A moving, gripping book.  I loved it.

Published by Penguin in 1997, the paperback I have cost £5.99 but it was bought 13 years ago…

 If you want to buy a copy –  and I do highly recommend this book – just click on the link below :

 

KIPLING SAHIB by CHARLES ALLEN

“Kipling Sahib” by Charles Allen is a well-written, well-researched, fascinating look into the Indian part of Rudyard Kipling’s life, those relatively few years he spent in India, but which marked him for life.

And for literature.

Charles Allen brings to this book all the detailed yet seemingly relaxed research of every single book he writes about his beloved India.  He is a writer who wears his scholarship easily.

A writer who loves India, writing about a writer who loved India, and a reviewer who lives in and also loves India, obviously makes India an essential part of this review. And the country is there, in all her noise and confusion and contradictions, especially when seen in the Victorian context.

The book traces the life of “Ruddy’s” parents, Lockwood and Alice Kipling, and their arrival in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1865. Rudyard was born in Bombay and loved the city of his birth instinctively, and the sights and smells and sounds of those early childhood years would colour his imagination for ever.

Over 30 years later, he would write of Bombay with obvious affection :

“Mother of cities to me,
For I was born at her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait.”

It was in this happy, protected world “between the palms and the sea” that Ruddy and his younger sister Trix lived the cosseted life of all colonial children – slightly ignored by their parents, doted on by their Indian servants, and allowed to run wild.

Allen paints a portrait of British India, and its strict hierarchy, into which the Kiplings never quite fitted in –  neither parents nor their clever, talented, but rather unconventional son.  This sense of not quite fitting in colours so much of Rudyard Kipling’s writings –  both poetry and prose – and explains the fascination he always had with the Tommy, the underdog, the outcast, the other side of the imperial British coin.

Pitifully few letters of Rudyard’s have survived, somehow managing to escape the ruthless holocaust of his later years, which saw papers, letters, drafts, scraps –  all the tools on which a biographer depends – being burned by the author and his wife.
And he was such a prolific letter-writer, which makes their absence more keenly felt.  But Allen painstakingly and skilfully weaves the few letters that survived, with those sent to Rudyard, with newspaper reports, and with diaries, to give the reader a lively, colourful glimpse into India, and how it affected the young Kipling.

Being sent back Home – i.e. to cold, dreary England – at a very early age had a lasting effect on Ruddy and his sister Trix.  They hid the truth about their brutal school from their parents, and went for years never seeing their family, let alone the heat and noise and colour of India, which both children missed so badly.

When he eventually returned to India, as a fledgling journalist, Ruddy was by then a teenager, on the cusp of manhood. His family then lived in Lahore, in the hot plains of the Punjab, and the young man set about re-discovering the land of his birth.  He inherits the sense of social exclusion that dogged his parents, never quite feeling fully at ease in British India, while simultaneously subscribing to many of its views.  Many of Kipling’s writings, read in the cold, harsh light of 21st century PC thinking, are shockingly xenophobic, but Kipling did no more than echo the views of the society in which he lived.

Rudyard Kipling emerges from this book as a fully-rounded man, at times very likeable, at times not so likeable at all.  He is brilliant but flawed, arrogant and insecure, and above all, never fully at ease in society.  “Kim” and the “Jungle Books” are just the most famous results of this feeling of not quite fitting in, of abandonment, observing one’s own society from the outside.  It is with a sense of pleasure that we learn that Alice Kipling called her infant Ruddy “little friend of all the world.”

In conclusion, a small personal aside : what strikes the 21st century reader of “Kipling Sahib”, especially if an Indian resident, is how some aspects of the country have changed so little.  The country that the Victorian Kiplings inhabited was as noisy, engaging, often maddening, sometimes frightening, and, sad to say, as insanitary then as now.

Just one example.

Here is Charles Allen quoting a history of Bombay by J.M.Maclean, who was writing before the senior Kiplings arrived in India, but he could well have been writing about India in 2010 :

“All round the island on Bombay was one foul cesspool, sewers discharging on the sands, rocks only used for the purposes of nature…To travel by rail…was to see in the foreshore the latrine of the whole population of the Native Town.”

“Kipling Sahib” is published by Little, Brown and sells in hardback, in India for Rs 795.

If you wish to buy the book, now you have read this review, just click on the link below.

Couldn’t be easier.

THE GAME by Laurie R. King

What a pleasure to discover a whole new genre of fiction, even though the rest of the world has seemingly known about it for years.

Meet Mary Russell, the fictional wife of the equally fictional Sherlock Holmes.

Miss Russell has to be one of the most charming derring-do heroines a reader could hope to meet. Young, short-sighted and a feminist long before her time, in “The Game” Mary and her husband set off for India on the trail of… ?

Well, who else but Kim ?

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, naturally.

This delicious detective novel cleverly weaves the lives of two fictional greats together, with just enough literary detail that occasionally you catch yourself wondering “What if..” and “Could they really…”

Mary is the driving force in the novel, and is a hugely attractive heroine, putting up with all the cloak-and-dagger-y stuff that life with Sherlock Holmes (and Kim) demands.

“The Game” is her story, her adventure,  and her good-natured sense of humour drives the exciting plot along, though her love, respect and trust in her husband are clearly the mainstay of her life.  To see the great Sherlock Holmes in love with a charming young woman is to see one of fiction’s greats through a different lens.

India of the early 1920s is brilliantly brought to life, in all its avatars.  From colonial Delhi, to fly-blown villages and caravanserai, to the fabulous but troublesome kingdom of Khanpur, our intrepid heroine (and her husband) travel in search of Kim, who is by now middle-aged.

Of course he is.

Jimmy, the hugely rich but hugely bored Maharajah of Khanpur is brought to brilliant life, his intelligence, charm and sense of grievance making him a compelling, increasingly worrying figure.

This literary tour-de-force is charming, fun, and a genuine page-turner.  You really don’t want the book to end, whilst simultaneously longing to find out what happens.

 

“The Game” is published by Allison & Busby and costs £7.99.

If you enjoyed this review (and I hope you did) and now wish to buy the book, just click on the link below :