Sunday, 29 August 2010

Missykad, or Britannic Raj Through The Turnstiles (Malcolm Henry James)

available for purchase here.
Cost: 200 Indian rupees, which is about £3. The website above which sells it claims to offer free shipping worldwide, but someone would actually have to test this to see how that panned out.
ISBN: 8188330167

--The blurb--
"Missykad tells the story of Jack David Brewster, who was born out of wedlock to a British planter and a woman labourer of his estate, Missykad in Wayanad, bordering the Nilgiris. His curious love for a woman, Cleopatra, whom he chances to meet in a brothel in Bombay, forms the core of the story."

--The review--
Mr James' first and only self-published novel, issued when the now no longer living author was 71 years old in 2004, promises to "[explore] the conflicting values and the transitional mindset of losers and winners in the struggle for Independence and, analogously, the terminal struggle of life." Interspersed with sonnets by Mr James and taking on narrative as well as history, this is a lofty aspiration. Regrettably, it is not successful in achieving its aims, and perhaps reflects why the novel is self-published and not easy to purchase in the six years since its publication.

It would have benefited, first and foremost, from some good honest editing; the punctuation and grammar needs work in several places (although these errors do not damage the work to the point of making it illegible) and the sonnets, probably the best part of the work for their beauty and grace, would have been better situated at the beginnings of the chapters in which they appear, rather than being integrated into the prose in a manner that appears almost completely random. Repetition of information is also a common problem in some areas.

Secondly, Mr James is not especially even-handed in his approach, with there being too much detail in some places, not enough in others, and irrelevant information included elsewhere. This makes the reader's attention liable to wander. Although a positive impression is made at the start by Mr James' authentic and classically-styled prose, and by the setting and background of Missykad itself, the novella has very little to do with the coffee plantation after the first few chapters, which indicates perhaps a missed opportunity for the author in terms of plumbing a fantastic area of normally maligned history rather than focusing more traditionally on Gandhi and the runup to Independence.

Potentially fascinating characters are also left to fall by the wayside, with nobody really built up enough for readers to care about them. The lasting impression comes instead from the couple who originally owned Missykad and their daughter, after whom the plantation is named, but after the first chapter or so we unfortunately do not hear about them again, or much about the coffee plantation's work. The novella is short but dense and after a while James' overladen style starts to grate. This is perhaps compounded by the fact that the work is not really cohesive, with characterisation and description often abandoned in favour of seemingly unconnected anecdotes. This lack of attention means that little or no emotion is felt while reading, and when the book ends, we are filled only with what could have been about Missykad, rather than what was.

This book is only recommended, therefore, if you have a specific interest in Britain's influence in India, along with a lot of patience. As previously mentioned, the highlight of the novella is the sonnets, which, while eloquent and beautiful, also employ a style that is very much of things past, and unlikely to always resonate with today's readers. Fans of Shakespeare and Keats could be persuaded to seek out this highly affordable book for the poetry alone, and it is a shame only that Mr James is no longer alive to be counselled to instead publish a book of poetry, rather than a slipshod piece of fiction.

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