I opened Heat and Dust hoping that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s 1975 Man Booker Prize winning novel would provide a fresh take on a theme explored by Paul Scott in The Jewel in the Crown (the first book in his Raj Quartet series) and of course that classic of the cultural divide; E M Forster’s A Passage to India.
In many of the tributes written about Jhabvala on her death in April 2013, she was described as a “cold-eyed observer of people and places” and a writer whose status as a non-native inhabitant meant she could view the country with unemotional detachment.
Detached and unemotional are indeed good descriptions for this tale of the cultural divide between colonisers and the natives they govern and of those who try to break free from conventions and restrictions.
The story is that of an un-named woman who travels to India in an attempt to unravel the mystery of her step grandmother Olivia during the rule of the British in the 1920s. She deciphers the story mainly from letters Olivia wrote to her sister and by visiting places where her grandmother lived. Gradually we learn that Olivia’s story is one of disgrace and scandal Feeling smothered by the restrictions of the British way of life in India, she fell under the spell of a Nawab (an Indian prince) for whom she abandoned her husband . Fifty years later her grand-daughter, though more independent and less naive than Olivia similarly becomes seduced by India. She too crosses the divide.
The novel has none of the tension found in Scott’s novel nor does it have the subtleties of A Passage to India. It doesn’t so much end as simply peters out inconclusively leaving me feeling decidedly underwhelmed. It’s not what I expect of a prize-winning novel.