(My Rating: 4/5)
Published in 1953 and set in pre-Independent India, (or perhaps just after Independence – I could not ascertain which) Kingfishers Catch Fire is about fickle, illogical and dreamy Sophie, a British lady, who after travelling around India with her two young children, as and when a new fancy struck, finally decides to settle down in a remote part of Kashmir.
She is of the firm belief that she will fit in seamlessly with the locals and that she and her family will be accepted as one of them. Of course, the reality is something quite different and this is what the novel explores. It brings into focus much of what the situation in India was, specifically the hierarchical relationships between the Indians and the British – the unspoken barriers that existed, where everyone had their place and no one questioned those places or tried to alter things. Sophie however, is an exception; she does question and does try to change things. The scenario that unfolds – what happens to this single mother of two – as portrayed through Godden’s story, is a very believable one.
The characters are very interesting and well fleshed out. Sophie is the kind to go off on a whim and make plans without examining the practicality of their execution. For example, when she is short on money and decides to settle down in rural India, she emphatically declares to her daughter- “We shan’t be poor whites. We shall be peasants.”
Her daughter Teresa however, is just the opposite and more like the grown up in the equation. She would love to settle down to a grounded life, but at a tender age has already been subjected to her mother’s erratic behaviour, forced to move from place to place and also has faced the trauma of seeing her mother seriously ill and lying in hospital, without any family or other security to fall back on.
“When Sophie had an idea, her child trembled.”
Godden’s style of writing is very descriptive. In fact at times it gets a bit tiring, simply because it is so vivid and the brain has a lot of work to do in order to absorb it all! But the result is that she describes the Kashmir of seventy odd years ago in great detail and so beautifully. I always consider myself fortunate to come across someone’s first had account of a place from years or centuries ago.
Here’s an extract:
I first heard about Rumer Godden when a fellow blogger reviewed The Mousewife, which I subsequently read and loved. (Here’s my review) But more than anything I have been intrigued by Rumer Godden’s life. Her writing in Kingfishers Catch Fire is indeed indicative of the life experiences she had – it seeps through the words – and that, more than anything else, is what I found special about this book.