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28.8.05

The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott

Four impressive books make the Raj quartet, "The Jewel in the Crown" (480pgs) "The Day of the Scorpion" (495 pgs) "The Towers of Silence" (397pgs) "A Division of the Spoils" (720pgs). A lot to read - over 2000 pages - but of such quality, such perfectly interlocking storylines spread over the four books . Characters and situations in the first book carry through to the last in a beautifully natural way. The huge cast of characters become familiar over the four books so as a reader you get so involved, so engrossed that you really begin to care about these people. Such superb intricate detail is described throughout the novels that the beauty and magnificence of India is brought to life. Set in India during the British Empire - The Raj - it spans a time from the early 30's throughout the war to Independence of India and the partition in to Pakistan and India. It’s a series of events told from several different perspectives both British and Indian. We get intricate backgrounds of the many characters in scrumptious detail then intricate plotting that intrigues and entertains. It is both warm and heartrending yet through provoking as it explores the many facets of the Indian Empire ruled by really only a handful of British civilians and soldiers. We are taken into their lives and we see all sides to them as they try to react to events and history unfolding around them.

Each of the four novels could be read as a stand-alone novel but to really appreciate what the author Paul Scott (who died in 1978) was trying to achieve a back-to-back read of all four is necessary. I was lucky having spent many months finding these novels in matching covers then being able to read them as a holiday read all together. We are taken in the storyline through a series of key events small and large that shapes the lives of those concerned against a backdrop of war and forthcoming Indian independence. Forbidden relationships between a white British woman of the ruling Raj class and an educated Indian who has been to the best British boarding school have a tragic outcome and set in turn a series events that follow key characters around India till independence. Key events and characters dip in and out of the novels - someone in the first novel may reappear in the third yet it all happens seamlessly and not at all contrived. The massive groundwork done in the first novel is carried through to fruition in the final three works. The first novel (The Jewel in the Crown) is told a lot of the time in flashback giving the tragic events that unfold a view from several different perspectives. This admittedly slows the pace somewhat in this first novel but the strength of the narrative and the beauty of the descriptive passages carries the day. Having set the tragic scene we move on a short while in the second novel (The day of the Scorpion) and introduce a lot of the later characters on which the consequences of the first novels outcome rest. This is a truly fantastic read setting out the early life of many of the characters - young men and women whom the fall of the British empire in India would affect the most. A whole exotic world of hill station life and people going out to India form England is recreated here all of it now passed into history. The author gets right into the mind of the characters with all the certainties and doubts of the British empire that come apart at the seams when war breaks out in the far east. A gripping and entertaining novel it was a superb unforgettable read that I could not put down - never dull for a moment the story and evocation of life in India just flowed of the pages. The third novel (The Towers of Silence) brings in extra but vitally important characters that are themselves on the periphery of Raj life which was hopelessly class ridden yet held together only really by the idea that white British people were chosen almost by god to rule India. Yet not having the "correct" background or money meant there were layers within white society that were hardly acceptable - this novel explores these concepts in riveting detail. Moving yet amusing in places this really gets to grips with the whole Raj experience of Empire and the different classes of people who administered it. Yet whilst it explores these levels of snobbery it also links all the other characters stories together so when in the final novel the strands come together it all becomes clear. The fourth and final novel "A Division of the Spoils" is concerned with the coming Independence of India and its partition. The people whose lives have been spent in India ruling and administrating face the twilight of the British Raj with uncertainty as the Muslims and Hindus that make up India's population battle it out in dreadful intercommunity slaughter. With all the previously certain things in their lives turned upside down the problems affect ruling Indians too in the princely states whose existence was guaranteed by British rule. Political intrigue and betrayal as well as a coming together of threads fist started in the first novel all occur in this the final novel. For me this last novel cleared up many of the uncertainties but still left a few enigmas. By far the most gripping of all the novels mainly because of the finalisation of the story the many twists and turns of the saga carried on right until the end. At no time throughout the books could I have foreseen the outcome or the reasoning behind it.

Power, Love, Sex, Betrayal, War, wasted lives, dashed hopes all set in an exotic world long forgotten, a powerful moving gripping saga that I feel has been overlooked in recent years dealing as it does with the largely forgotten British Empire in India. At no time does this glorify Empire - in fact it is damning in its criticism of both sides of the racial divide, the central tenet of the whole work is absurdity of those in the British community who see their role in India far too seriously, as if God had ordained them to rule and the tragic consequences of this to themselves and those around them. Altogether a superb read rich in detail, beautiful narrative and a wonderful sense of an on going story. A beautiful touch was the inclusion early in the third book of a couple of ancillary characters that later went on to be the basis of Paul Scott's Booker prize winning book Staying On six years later along with other characters form the Raj Quartet. I'll recommend the Raj Quartet for a superb holiday read - it is available as a large all in one volume, I read mine as the Granada paperbacks from the early 80's that were republished to compliment the 14 part TV series "The Jewel in the Crown".

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