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Wednesday, 16 February 2011 20:44

A novel that sparkles with quality writing

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In Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (ISBN 978-1-4000-6893-7, 2010, $25), first-time novelist Helen Simonson has created a superb portrait of life and love in a contemporary English village.

Edgecombe St. Mary is the name of the village, and by the end of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand readers will feel as if several of the inhabitants of Edgecombe are their neighbors. There is, first of all, the widower Maj. Ernest Pettigrew, a retired military officer and head of an ancient village family, an old-fashioned, stiff-upper-lip Englishman with a subtle sense of the absurd and a dry wit and compassion that will endear him to those who come to know him.

The major has fallen in love with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper and widow whose family is trying to displace her in her work with a fervently Islamic nephew. Mrs. Ali is a strong women of decided opinions who is disinclined to go along with the plans of her relatives and who slowly feels herself drawn to the major. As the two of them grow closer, their families and their friends in the village begin to do their utmost to separate them.

Around the major and Mrs. Ali swirl a host of other characters: the major’s son, Roger, who is trying his best to be a high flyer in the London business and social world; Amina, a courageously forthright Pakistani woman with connections to Mrs. Ali and her nephew; the ladies and gentlemen of the local golfing club, who add much to the humor of the story; Marjorie, Maj. Pettigrew’s sister-in-law, who spends a good deal of the novel dickering with him about a valuable shotgun owned by her deceased husband; Alice, Maj. Pettigrew’s eccentric next-door neighbor, who leads the fight against plans to develop Edgecombe; and a platoon of others who lend sparkle and froth to this champagne bottle of a book.

In addition to its intriguing storyline — Simonson manages at the end to tie up all the loose ends plot and subplots as deftly as the major manages his life — Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is distinguished by its wit and by the fine writing of its author. In this passage, for instance, Maj. Pettigrew, Roger, and Roger’s American girl friend Sandy are discussing the purchase of a nearby cottage which Roger intends to purchase. After having met Mrs. Augerspier, the owner of the cottage, Roger announces to his father that he intends to do his best to beat her down on the price of the property. He tells his father, who has taken a dislike to Mrs. Augerspier for her blatant bigotry regarding Mrs. Ali, that they can best take their revenge by getting the cottage at a low price.

“‘On what philosophical basis does that idea rest?’ asked the Major. Roger gave a vague wave of the hand and the Major saw him roll his eyes for Sandy’s benefit.

“’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?’

“’On a nice dry spit of land known as the moral high ground?’ suggested the Major.”

Her choice of words and the way she puts together her sentences, many of them flawless in their precision, are the building stones for this cathedral of high comedy. Major Pettigrew is that rarity among novels these days, an extremely well-written story with in which the words stand like stacked stones, each chosen to fit exactly in its place, all while the writer keeps us enthralled by her characters and their stories. Simonson has lived in the United States for 20 years, but her writing here is distinctly English, with just the proper touch of word-play and drama. Here she describes the major after a young Pakistani has moved into his house for a few days:

“Roger and Sandy went to fetch their hamper and as the Major tried not to think of truffles, which he had always avoided because they stank like sweaty groins, Abdul Wahid came out of the house. As usual he was carrying a couple of dusty religious texts tucked tightly under his armpit partly and was wearing the dour frown from which the Major now understood was the result of excessive thinking rather than mere unhappiness. The Major wished young men wouldn’t think so much. It always seemed to result in absurd revolutionary movements, or, as in the case of several of his former pupils, the production of very bad poetry.”

It is common today for some critics and readers to complain about the mediocre state of contemporary literature, and some of these complaints possess a certain validity. Many books nowadays do indeed bear the mark of a graduate school‘s “writer’s workshop,” many offer the reader unbelievably eccentric characters or unrealistic plots, and many never come to life at all, remaining dull and lifeless as the dead trees which gave manufacture to their pages. In Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, however, Helen Simonson has reminded us what fiction can be — delightful, life-enhancing, provocative of emotion and intellect.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Random House, 2010. 368 pages.

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