Here she discusses two books she has been reading recently:
Can it just be coincidence? The last two books I’ve read were recommended to me by different friends yet appeared within a year of one another – and both are historical novels that reflect on national identity. Part of an answer comes from the first of my authors, JG Farrell, who published The Siege of Krishnapur in1973. ‘I preferred to use the past,’ he explained, because ‘people have already made up their minds what they think about the present. About the past they are more susceptible to clarity of vision.’Read more about Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity at the Oxford University Press website.
Drawing on true events and diary memoirs from the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Farrell explores the gradual disintegration of a stranded British community, starving to death yet determined to stave off attacks by Indian troops they have themselves trained. In these strained circumstances, apparently trivial questions assume an overwhelming importance because – like the notorious pig fat for greasing cartridges that eventually drove subordinated Muslims to rebel – they represent crucially important social divisions. Should an English unmarried mother sleep in the ballroom with the ladies, or should she be relegated to the Eurasian quarters? Should the few remaining items of food be distributed equally, or should they be auctioned off to the richest bidder? Should survivors endanger their own lives by burying fallen friends in the Christian graveyard, or should the bodies be tossed over the walls to be picked over by scavengers already bloated from this unprecedented harvest? As the weeks plod by, some seek refuge in the Bible and insanity, while others begin to doubt the wisdom of a western culture based on material prosperity rather than spiritual wealth.
At first sight, Ragtime, an American classic about the early twentieth century by E L Doctorow (why were initials so popular in the 1970s?), seems unrelated. Written in a choppy syncopated style, the story is carried by characters who weave in and out of the spotlight like the instrumentalists of a jazz band taking turns to play solo. Centre stage stand Father, Mother and other anonymized members of a rising New York family whose affluence stems from selling patriotic paraphernalia. They repeatedly encounter real-life men who are also forging a new entrepreneurial nation, such as Pierpont Morgan, Henry Ford and Harry Houdini, as well as the imagined Tateh, an impoverished immigrant Jew who transforms himself through determination and initiative into a distinguished aristocrat worth a fortune. Their lives are disrupted by a black couple with an illegitimate baby: their sudden intrusion into everyday routine initially seems unimportant, yet their actions eventually come to dominate the plot line.
Set half a century and half the globe apart, these two books both explore problems perplexing the authors and their contemporaries in the 1970s. The previous decade had seen explosive challenges to older conventions, but not everybody was willing to relinquish traditional values. Both in America and Britain, questions of race and relationships, materialism and marriage, sex and society were still being thrashed out. Above all – what does it mean to be a nation? Considering modern controversies about a black President and British citizenship tests based on cricket, perhaps it’s not such a coincidence that I found both these books a riveting read.