To the reader of today, one of the most interesting things about this well-paced and beguiling novel is that it was written in 1973. It makes a bold and intriguing effort to get inside the minds of the colonial settlers of the 1850s, as they wrestle with the consequences of the Indian Mutiny. But the reader of today is conscious of India primarily as the rising economic giant, where software and call centres grow with astonishing pace. The world’s idea of India is having to be updated constantly. So the novel is a snapshot both of the time at which it is set, 1857, and of British attitudes to India at the time of writing.
The characters of the novel are drawn almost exclusively from the British colonial class and Farrell devotes a lot of intellectual energy to portraying their thought processes as they deal with a bloody and in many ways horrific uprising. Part of this artifice requires him to describe real horrors in the most mundane and workmanlike terms, reflecting the distant and incomprehending viewpoint of his characters. This is sometimes hilarious.
The all-consuming concern of some protagonists for doctrinal disputes within the Church of England, even in the face of impending death, is both amusing and, to the modern eye, almost satirical in its description. But it serves a purpose in reminding us that such matters were of real significance. After all, what are the equivalents in today’s Britain? Whether the X Factor is better than Britain’s Got Talent? Whether nuclear power should be eschewed? What would we worry about if we thought we would be either violently murdered or starve to death within the next couple of days?
The description of the Victorian sensibility for progress and its virtues is excellent. Sometimes, the portrayal of the Victorian mind can seem somewhat caricatured. But this is a book of primary colours, and the story rattles along with a lot of humour while covering essentially inhumane and desperate events.
I liked it.