|Apr/May 2010 Book Reviews|
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.
Allen & Unwin. 2010. 388 pp.
ISBN: 978 1 74237 184 9
"A modern Love-story," says the blurb. But this book is more than that, and no brief description captures the freshness, the humour, and the sheer energy and variety with which Helen Simonson has shaped it. As well as a wonderfully dramatic adventure and a hilarious and disastrous village ball, she has woven in plenty of things to think about. The conflicts created for her characters by the casual bigotry, class-discrimination and racism of ordinary and very nice people; the struggle to reconcile old traditions with modern materialism; a glimpse of family conflicts and the misunderstanding arising from the generation gap; and the common dreams of companionship and freedom which all of us share, no matter how old we are: all these are part of the mix. Simonson's greatest achievement, however, is to make her main characters wonderfully fallible, complex, sensitive, stubborn, sharp and intelligent human beings, so that we feel for them and with them, and rejoice when they behave like a mythical hero and heroine and follow their impossible dream, to the outrage of their families and the censure and disapproval of society in general.
From the moment that sixty-eight-year-old Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired) answers the doorbell wearing a clematis-patterned housecoat, it is clear that he is not your usual romantic hero. Nor is Mrs Jasmina Ali, the Muslim owner of the village Supersaver Supermart (the name says much about recent changes in village England), your run-of-the mill heroine. Both are strong, outspoken, independent characters with a wry sense-of-humour and a sometimes caustic wit, and both have lost a loved spouse in recent years and have adapted to a solitary life. Neither is looking for romance but a friendship with someone who shares their love of literature would certainly be acceptable.
Major Pettigrew (he is almost always "Major," just as Jasmina is almost always "Mrs Ali") has decided views on "honour, duty, decorum and a properly brewed cup of tea." The society in which he lives is a conventional English village society, almost a caricature of such a place, and his position in it is established and taken for granted. Mrs Ali, is a fifty-six-year-old, English born, Urdu-speaking widow, whose Indian relatives are starting to exert pressure on her to behave as a traditional Indian widow should and thus allow the men to take charge and retire into the family to look after an elderly relative. Circumstances bring them together and friendship blossoms. But circumstances, relatives and the expectations of others also part them. The course of true love never did run smooth, as they say, but modern society seems able to throws more twists and turns into the course than might be expected and Simonson exploits a surprising range of them.
There are many different character is this book and some, especially the Americans in the story, are very close to caricature, but generally all the characters are given a human side which saves them from being shallow stereotypes. Simonson is also good at suggesting underlying tensions without spelling them out. Altogether, she handles the story with great skill and although she does not tell us the final outcome of the adventurous romance she allows us to dream on, happily convinced that love may, indeed, conquer all.
The advertising material sent to reviewers of this book suggests that if readers enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society, which was published by the same publishers who are handling Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, then they will enjoy this book. They are very different books, but both treat the reader as intelligent, both deal with more than romance, and both are fresh and interesting first novels.