Sunday, October 22, 2006

Night on the Island

A story on the BBC news website today indicates that the Indian government plan to open up almost 50 new sites for tourism in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. Before the 2004 tsunami, tourism had been steadily growing in the islands, but was abruptly cut off in the months following the disaster, when hundreds of people lost their lives or were made homeless. In order to try to increase tourism, the government offered perks to people travelling to the islands for their holidays, and air fares were considerably reduced. However, it was a mostly domestic tourism last year, probably because of these incentives.

Now, it seems, the government wants to develop new sites in the islands, though states that these will be carefully chosen, and developed in accordance with ecological good practice and so on. How realistic this will be, of course, is a different matter. Can virgin sites ever be developed so carefully as to cause no impact on the surrounding area? According to the article, it's not as if any of the uninhabited islands will be undesignated, and used as private resorts.

I'll admit that I don't know much about the Andamans, apart from what I culled from M.M. Kaye's "Death in the Andamans". This is one of her six "whodunnits", set in various bits of long-vanished Empire: the book was originally published in 1960 as "Night on the Island". Kaye's foreword to the 1985 Viking edition stated that the idea for the story, however, was roughed out in 1938 when she herself had made a visit to the islands and stayed with a friend there, and it appears that the story is set in that period.

There's a great charm in Kaye's "contemporary" fiction as compared to her historical fiction such as "The Far Pavilions" or "Trade Wind". The settings are very well drawn and attractive, with the unspoilt appeal of past years and the fact that each of her heroines were travelling to unusual or untouristed places: the Andamans; Berlin in 1953; Cyprus in 1949; Kashmir in 1947; Kenya and Zanzibar in the early 1950s. Kashmir is probably no longer a desirable tourist destination, given the tensions there, and which Kaye mentions in her book were even then very much a problem in the last days of the Raj. Cyprus before partition is described beautifully, and the affection for the island which the author had is obvious. It's interesting to read "Death in Kenya" as a defence of the white settlers' point of view during the Mau Mau Uprising: nowadays, however, one would be hard put to defend the British Government's tactics.

"Death in Zanzibar" is spoiled for me despite its detailed, unusual and interesting setting by the character of its heroine, Dany Ashton, an astonishingly naive, selfish and brainless girl. Kaye doesn't make the same mistake in her other books, though: Sarah Parrish and 'Copper' Randal, for example, are intelligent and resourceful young women. "Death in the Andamans" is my favourite, partly because of the unusual setting, and partly because of the very appealing relationship between Copper and her friend Valerie. I'm unsure whether the books are still in print, but I'd recommend them all (with reservations as noted!)


Monday, October 02, 2006

Book review - Moon Tiger

When I was a child, I read a few of Penelope Lively’s books for children: The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, The Voyage of QV66, A Stitch in Time, and others. I’d never read any of her adult novels or other works until G recommended them to me, so I picked up Moon Tiger last weekend, and finished reading it yesterday.

Moon Tiger won the Booker Prize in 1987, and I think it is the first and only Booker Prize-winning novel I’ve ever read. It is a beautifully-written book, spanning the life led by fictitious writer-historian Claudia Hampton, told in non-chronological flashbacks, woven together with her plans for new book, a history of the world. Most of the book is told from Claudia’s viewpoint, but certain episodes are seen by several people: her brother, Gordon; Gordon’s wife, Sylvia; Claudia’s lover, Jasper; their daughter, Lisa; and a Hungarian art student, Laszlo. Each point of view is distinct and consistent, but the variation is not distracting.

The main part of the book tells of Claudia’s time in Cairo, where she was a war correspondent. This is set at a time when the author was a child, and memories of Cairo and Egypt are clear and evocative. Claudia falls in love with a British tank commander, Tom Southern, and is later devastated by his death. Although this story line only begins about half-way through the book, one can clearly see that it has changed Claudia, though she might not consciously admit it. She’s an entertaining heroine: spiky, arrogant, argumentative, intelligent, opinionated, unconventional, unable to show much affection to her daughter; yet you warm to her, wishing that you had known her.

Yet the novel is more than just Claudia’s story, or of any of the other characters, of whose lives one gets only brief but tantalising glimpses. Lively talks about the English language, the conquest of Mexico, the history of Egypt, war, love, loss and the difficulties of really knowing any single person.

It isn’t a long book, brief by the standards of most novels now written, but almost every page is necessary. Not a word is wasted. Thoroughly recommended.