My rating: 4 of 5 stars
i must have read this book when it was first published (in 1978), or somewhere thereabouts, and had fond memories of it although only a hazy recollection (at a conservative estimate, that was 4,500 books ago). but anyway when chancing upon the audiobook, i was happy to dive in all over again.
and it was marvelous 🙂
i’ve no doubt my younger self was entranced by the love story at the heart of it: Ash and Juli and their peregrinations and difficulties, which are plentiful and often caused by the societies they live in: british, hindu, muslim. both end up as people apart–they can’t be any of the above, because none of those societies will accept them together. in this and in a lot of aspects of feminist politics, this book was waaaaaaay ahead of its time.
but what struck me this time was the last third of the book, which doubtless would have made me yawn quite a bit when i was younger: the “Empire” in “British Empire” and the mess it has left behind.
a great whacking chunk of the book is dedicated to one battle, or rout, in which unpaid Afghan troops took out their frustrations on a tiny contingent of British soldiers. this is the only part of the book that in any way betrays any racist language–Kaye describes the Afghans as “monkey-like” and has a lot of other derogatory terms for them when they don’t behave as good Brits would. but she also writes quite a bit about the inevitability of the clash, and how the Afghans never asked the Brits to show up and occupy their country. so in that sense, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
the battle itself, however, is described (from the British point of view) in such harrowing terms that it’s unbelievably riveting. the Brits are not white-hatted good guys here, they are invaders, but they fight so desperately for their lives that it is horrific to see them picked off one by one. i can’t even begin to imagine how much research went into detailing all that happened.
and also, how much research went, generally, into describing the entirety of the world–everything from the sound of wind in the grasses to the great variety of wildlife to clothing and rituals and … oh, just everything–Kaye leaves no stone unturned even when you wish she would just get on with it. the mass of the whole, however, makes for something more than a story, it makes for an experience, and for that i find myself once again entranced by this book.
the audiobook reader Vikas Adam deserves some kind of award for his reading–he reads a huge range of accents and multilingual vocabulary with a wonderful fluidity. he even does the women pretty well. although he gets a bit overexcited from time to time, this is a great example of what an audiobook reading should be–not entirely a performance, not entirely a straight reading, but something of both, and he manages never to throw you out of the story itself. bravo, that.