Sunday, November 3, 2013

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonson

From the back of the book:

Major Ernest Pettigrew is perfectly content to lead a quiet life in the sleepy village of Edgecombe St Mary, away from the meddling neighbours and his overbearing son. But when his brother dies, the Major finds his companionship deepening with the village shopkeeper, Mrs. Ali. Drawn together by a love of books and the loss of their partners, they are soon forced to contend with irate relatives and gossiping villagers. The perfect gentleman, but the most unlikely hero, the Major must ask himself what matters most: family obligation, tradition or love? 

One fine morning in the fictitious village of Edgecombe St Mary, we learn that the Major's younger brother has passed away. Is it providence that brings Mrs. Ali at that very moment to the Major's door because her newspaper boy has fallen sick? 

The Major is a sixty-eight year old widower who is caught in the unenviable state of having to experience the passing of a younger sibling. The book opens with great poignancy, because as you witness the poor man's grief and his attempts to gather himself in front of Mrs. Ali, the inevitability of life and old age strike you. To the Major, struggling to come to terms with the changes around him, Mrs. Ali, a fifty-two year old widow of Pakistani origin is a much needed gust of something fresh; an oasis of calm in troubled waters. As the two gradually fall in love, they have to contend with all the shock and judgement of a close-knit community. 

The Major is the quintessential English Gentleman; he is courteous, a little crusty, sarcastic and a firm believer of the "stiff upper lip". He shares a somewhat troubled relationship with his son Roger, whom he sees an obtuse young man, thoughtless in his interactions and encroaching upon the Major's good manners quite often. Consider this line: "Oh, it's simple pragmatism, Dad. It's called the real world. If we refused to do business with the morally questionable, the deal volume would drop in half and the good guys like us would end up poor. Then where would we all be?" said Roger. "On a nice dry spit of land known as the moral high ground?" suggested the Major. This exchange is a typical example of the kind of relationship the Major and his son share. It's rather telling on Roger's part that most of time, he is not aware of having offended the people around him with his crudity.

The book is full of such small plots; stories in themselves. There's Mrs. Ali's nephew who comes back from a religious school in his homeland full of piety and changed beliefs and yet, hesitates to take responsibility for his old girlfriend and the child he fathered before he left England. The Major also shares conflicted relationship with his brother's widow, Marjorie and struggles to reunite a pair of Churchills bequeathed by his father to both his sons upon his death.

The Major, though he might come across as a tad prejudiced (he initially dislikes Roger's girlfriend Sandy just because she is American), is impossible to dislike. You're left with a lingering sense of pity even as you read about him, because he is just an ordinary man, approaching his twilight years and trying hard to hold on to the only way of life he understands. Mrs. Ali with her tensile grace and quiet ways, her loosely packed teas and a shared love of everything from Kipling to Johnson is independent and dignified. Their hesitant friendship quickly deepens into a deeper bond that causes the overthrow of the rigid lines of protocol in a prejudiced society.

"A couple may have nothing in common but the colour of their skin and the country of their ancestors, but the whole world would see them as compatible." Indeed, one would wonder what a retired English Major and the widowed Mrs. Ali with her colourful headscarves would have in common: the answer is elusive, it isn't written in stone and therein lies the charm of this book.

In my opinion, one of the most important themes of this book is death and old age. Death not in the form of a gloomy Reaper but as a part of every human's life; the coming to terms with it, the making the most of one's life as a consequence, the mourning of a loved one or a treasured memory or a way of life. 

"It surprised him that his grief was sharper than in the past few days. He had forgotten that grief does not decline in a straight line or along a slow curve like a graph in a child's math book. Instead, it was almost as if his body contained a big pile of garden rubbish full both of heavy lumps of dirt and of sharp thorny brush that would stab him when he least expected it." - the major's sense of loss at his brother's death.

For a first time novelist, Helen Simonson treats her prose with aplomb. The various cultural and racial issues that come up are dealt with wit and delicacy and the result is a sumptuous read that will not fail to delight you. 

"You are a wise man, Major, and I will consider your advice with great care--and humility." Abdul Wahid finished his tea and rose from the table to go to his room. "But I must ask you, do you really understand what it means to be in love with an unsuitable woman?"

"My dear boy," said the Major. "Is there really any other kind?"

The reader will question himself or herself, "How would I react if this happened in my village, to my neighbour, to someone in my family? Would I be able to treat the matter with the fairness it deserves if it weren't happening inside the pages of the book but in MY life?"

So, will the Major prevail and win the hand of the charming Mrs. Ali amidst mounting opposition? That's for you to find out :)

Helen Simonson
You can find the author's website here and and an interview of hers here.


Kate said...

I've heard so many great things about this book! I need to check it out!

Unknown said...

Sounds like a wonderful book - of simple men and complicated worldly tales.