One Last Look
by Susanna Moore
We reviewed this wonderful novel when it was first published last year but it is coming out in paperback this month and we felt it deserved to be show-cased again. We loved it!
This is a sumptuous, beautifully written story of a family's posting to India in the 1830s as told through the journals of Lady Eleanor Oliphant. Eleanor, her sister, Harriet, and their cousin, Lafayette, are accompanying the women's brother, Henry, to take up his post as Governor General.
This is an extraordinary story, which conjures up the sensual allure of India - the heat, sights, sounds, and smells that previous accounts of this period that I have read or seen simply don't capture. From the outward voyage Eleanor describes the discomfort and sometimes downright squalor to which they are subjected and which will become the norm in their 7 years in India.
What awaits them there is mind-boggling. Eleanor's graphic accounts of the country's grinding poverty, disease, and death are interspersed with accounts of the social mores and fashions (even pets in specially made clothing) and the use of opium for relief during illness - all of which conjures up an extremely surreal picture. The most extraordinary sequence is the "Grand Progress" that the group make to the Punjab. This includes a retinue (10 miles long!) of officers and their wives and children, thousands of troops and, of course, the army of servants that are required to wait, cook, clean and serve.
Susanna Moore used contemporary diaries and letters when researching this book and I felt that the confessions of incest stretched the imagination a little (it's hard to imagine a Victorian 'lady' putting this down in black and white) but I also felt that this cleverly illustrates the introverted and hypocritical nature of that society and belies the 'civilising' purpose of their presence in India.
As the journal progresses we observe Eleanor gradually falling in love with India and questioning her class, her country, and its presence there. Harriet "goes native", Lafayette sinks into decadence and Henry is tormented by failure after a disastrous campaign in Afghanistan.
One is left with the impression of a very strange period in time which does not succumb to the 'Merchant Ivory' romantic version of India but of a distant, fantastic place and I would challenge anyone not to fall in love with it.
Read our interview with Susanna Moore.