In September 1946 23-year-old Emma Smith set sail for India, to work as an assistant with a documentary unit making films about tea gardens in Assam. She was dazzled by India …
‘I went down the gangplank at Bombay, and India burst upon me with the force of an explosion.’
… and she wrote down as much as she could about her experiences because she so wanted to pin down the wonder of it all.
A few years later she would use what she remembered and what she wrote as the foundation for a wonderful, wonderful novel that would go on to with the James Tate Black Award for 1949
‘The Far Cry’ tells the story of 14-year old Teresa Digby. She’s an introspective and rather award child, and I think it’s fair to say that she is what her circumstances made her. When her parents’ marriage broke down her mother left her to go to America and her father left her for his sister to bring up. Teresa’s aunt wasn’t unkind, she was bringing her up as well as she could, but she lacked warmth and she lacked empathy.
When he learned that his wife was returning to England, and that she wanted to see her daughter, Mr Digby decided that he would take her to India, to visit his daughter from an earlier marriage, who was married to a tea planter. It wasn’t that he was interested in his daughter, it was just that he didn’t want his wife to have her.
He was a self-absorbed, dull-witted man who could never be the man he wanted to be or have the roles in life he wanted to play, but who would never acknowledge that, even to himself.
It’s telling that he remains Mr Digby from his first appearance to his last,
His sister knew his weaknesses, knew what he was lacking, but she believed that she had played her part and it was time for him to play his.
“He polished off this diplomacy and his visit with a kiss that landed haphazard on the nearest part of her face, and so left. Such kisses are interesting. For it might be thought that lips which had once, so any years before given off those dark flames of roses must always at a touch bestow a scent, the merest whiff, a pot-pourri of passion. But no, nothing like it.”
The relationship between between father and daughter is awkward, they are uncomfortable with each other. They don’t know each other, they don’t particularly want to know each other. He disdained her awkwardness as she dealt with so much that was unfamiliar – getting in and out of taxis, eating in restaurants, holding on to things like gloves and tickets – but she struggled through, and she came to realise that in attaching so much importance to such things and in not understanding how new and strange things must be for her it was her father who was lacking.
“Teresa, who had watched defeat and then recovery first line and then illuminate his face, observed the breach in his armour: he was old, and therefore weak. And she was young, with her strength growing. Age shook him as fiercely as he had yesterday shaken her in the street. Thoughtfully she ate her breakfast. That she had seen his weakness and was bound to take advantage of it was a tragedy, and a tragedy that the only alternative to his conquering her seemed to be for her to conquer him.”
When they set sail for India Teresa find a role and her confidence grows a little more. She helps with young children, and she formed a tentative friendship with Miss Spooner, an elderly spinster who was travelling to visit her sister. Her father lacks a role, and is left to worry over mosquito nets and play the occasional game of piquet.
In India though the story that had played out in London would play out again. Teresa was overwhelmed and that made her awkward, leaving his father to organise and mange their progress. He was ineffectual, and so Teresa stepped forward, with the interest in the strange new world they were encountering.
The early pages of this novel were an intriguing character study, so well done that even seemingly unsympathetic characters became interesting, but in India there would much more. Through Teresa’s eyes I saw the wonders of India, and I was as smitten as she was and as Emma Smith had been. She caught so many impressions so very, very well.
“Teresa’s head was full of sound and colour. Her head was a receptacle for tumbled rags of impression, rags torn from exotic garments that could never be pieced entirely together again; but the rags were better.”
The sea voyage, the journey though India, the feelings of strangers in a strange land are caught perfectly; every detail, every description feels so right.
In Assam Teresa meets the older half-sister her father adores.
Ruth is a beauty, she had been told that since she was a child, but her tragedy was that she was so caught up in presenting that image to the world, that she had lost the woman she really was. Edwin, her husband adored her, she wanted to tell him how she really felt, but she lacked the courage to tarnish the façade she had worked so hard to create.
It’s a compelling, heart-breaking, horribly believable portrait.
The presence of her father and her half-sister unsettles Ruth’s world; Teresa didn’t realise, she was caught up with new experiences and impressions.
There was a tragedy and Ruth thought that it might offer her an escape. Maybe it did ….
Sadness and hopefulness mingle in the end of this story
There is so much that makes it special.
Smith’s prose really is gorgeous. It’s distinctive, it’s right, and the descriptions so lovely and they catch every sensation. She follows the journey and she manages the both the day-to-day and the set pieces wonderfully well.
“Lights, no bigger than the candles on a Christmas cake, fringed every balcony, every wall, every stall, every hovel, a multitude of tiny red flames flickering alive in the huge dark night. They were still being lit: glistening haunches bent forward, hands poured a trickle of oil into saucers…The warm air was soft with sorrow. They trod among the muddy unseen ashes of the dead. Widows lay along the slushy steps, prostrate in grief, or crouched forward silently setting afloat their candles in little boats of tin the size and shape of withered leaves.”
The characters and relationships are captured beautifully; with the understanding and the empathy that they lack.
The direction that the plot takes is unpredictable; it isn’t contrived, it twists and turns as life does,
And everything works together beautifully, in this profound story of people alive in the world.
“India went on and on, on and on, as though it had no end, as though it had no beginning, as though seas and shores and other continents were only part of a feverish dream, as though this was the whole world and nothing exited beyond it; a world fat and dry on whose immense surface, far apart from one another, dwelt men and their beasts, living and dying together, generation after generation.”