It took a trip to Cambridge last week to make me sit up and finally take notice of Helen Simonson’s wonderful début novel. I’d seen it on the shelves at W. H. Smith’s here in Paris, but it was finding myself in a foreign city with nothing to read in the evenings that finally led me to purchase it. And what better place to read such a thoroughly English novel than the thoroughly English setting of Cambridge, amid its ornate Tudor façades, the lace tablecloths of “Auntie’s Tea Shop”, and the Cam flowing quietly by?
Edgecombe St Mary is a sleepy little village south of London, surrounded by rolling fields and picturesque views, where nothing much ever happens and the inhabitants unobtrusively get older. The vicar lets his wife energetically organize the lives of her neighbours (whether they want her to or not), Lord Dagenham hosts shooting parties on his estate and desperately tries to prevent his crumbling mansion from disintegrating entirely, and Major Ernest Pettigrew, living in solitary retirement since the death of his wife, goes to the golf club every week and endeavours to keep his egocentric, overbearing son, Roger, at bay. Foreigners are not welcomed: Americans are viewed with suspicion and distaste, and when George Tobin married a black actress several years earlier, he was asked to resign from his club.
So when Major Pettigrew, in shock over the sudden death of his brother, allows Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani owner of the village shop, to help him into his house and make him a cup of tea, they both understand that a fine line has been crossed. An unexpected friendship blossoms between them, based on a love of books and the shared understanding of the sorrow of life without a loved spouse. As friendship deepens into love, Major Pettigrew must choose whether to cast off his passivity in the face of his acquaintances’ escalating rudeness and stand up for the woman he loves, or risk losing his last chance at happiness.
At a time when multiculturalism in Britain is an issue increasingly under scrutiny, Helen Simonson aptly paints the portrait of a community whose British members have not forgotten the last days of British rule in India, and whose Pakistani members have not forgiven the grief and bloodshed surrounding Partition. With great delicacy, humour, and insight, she explores the themes of class and racial prejudice, acceptance, and personal integrity. Her plot is imaginative and controlled (though never contrived), and her style is smooth, vivid, and full of old-world courtesy. There is not a single jarring note, not a single word out of place, to disrupt the harmony and coherence of this wonderfully heart-warming novel. I read it with enormous admiration and enjoyment.
© Florence Berlioz 2011