I read #168 The Far Pavillions in a marathon session over the course of two days. As the book is over 1,000 pages long, that would normally be a strong recommendation but in fact it was due back at the library and I couldn’t be bothered to track it down again – my response was mixed and lukewarm at best.
Can’t avoid the word ‘epic’
The Far Pavillions isn’t just long – it’s also sweeping, grand, vast, complex and other words like that. The novel is broken into several sections which are called ‘books’, and honestly I feel the story – or at least the readers – would have been better served by breaking it up.
The novel begins with a young English woman marrying a crusty academic who is studying the languages and politics of northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. This would be enough plot to fill a novel, but is rattled over fairly quickly, as its the origin story for Our Hero, Ash. After a series of unfortunate deaths and the untimely intervention of the 1857 Indian Rebellion, Ash is left in the care of his nurse, a woman from the hills who treats him as her son.
The novel then shifts through a range of different genres – exotic childhood memoir; young British officer / hero of the Raj; palace intrigue; romance; spy story; war story. Each section is fairly distinct, and the change is fairly abrupt. I consider myself a skilled and experienced reader, but it did leave me scrambling to shift gears and reduced my enjoyment of the book as a whole, although most of the sections were pretty good.
White history of India
A problem I had with the book is that it is set in India, between roughly 1850 and 1880 and written by a white (as far as I can tell) woman whose ties to the country are through the Raj – several generations of her family served in the British army in India, her great-uncle wrote a book about the mutiny mentioned above, her husband’s family were also in the British army.
As I know nothing about the history of India at that period, I can’t tell if MM Kaye has written a reasonable account or if The Far Pavillions deserves the cover line “The Gone with the Wind of the North-West frontier” not just for page count and war stories but also for blatant white-washing.
What I can say is that parts of the book read like a story from Arabian nights – beautiful princesses, evil courtiers, forced marriage and murder – but there again, costumes aside, so do parts of British royal history and so do the family histories of plenty of ordinary folk.
In addition, MM Kaye co-opts actual historical characters for her novel, giving them major roles in her stories and creating backgrounds, episodes and conversations whole-cloth. The line between outright fiction and historical fact is severely blurred – as far as I can tell its as though she had added an extra character to Churchill’s war room or Elizabeth I’s inner circle and personally, I don’t like that. But books like The Other Boleyn Girl have been very popular so perhaps I’m in a minority.