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Scott's third novel about the British in India is set in the war years 1939-45; it retains the patient pace of the previous narratives and yet accelerates in stress as the raj era ends in dispersion. Scott repeats characters and episodes from both The Jewel in the Crown (1966) and The Day of the Scorpion (1968) but the violence is now interior -- vultures coming home to roost on silent towers in a deserted imperial landscape. Chief barometer of uneasy Indian summers at the British colony at Pankot is Barbie Batchelor, retired from her post as superintendent of a Protestant mission school system; she's garrulous, good humored, a bit zany, her soul rubbed to tenderness in the pursuit of God. She becomes the companion to elderly Mabel Layton, withdrawn to her rose garden with a gift of stillness. Because she was a legendary presence of the old order before the emergence of a new India, before the battle flags were ""mummied rags,"" Mabel's death brings the acknowledgement that ""the godhead had left the temple, no one knew when, or how, or why."" The debris of vanishing empire accumulates. Acts and lives which seemed to mesh in the fabric of duty and honor were becoming isolated and ""expository"": a young man's death in the field; the mutilated flesh of a rank-bound officer in a sacrifice which gave off no heat; and the fate of the three remaining Layton women. Barbie's ragged excursions on the way to madness and death on the day of the atomic holocaust in 1945 reflect the congruence of history and men's lives, melded by ""some distant but terrible fire."" Like a collection of Chirico artifacts, people and postures assume an insidious melancholy, and there is that echo of early Forster -- particularly in the character of Mabel Layton -- with the transcendent pull of spiritual legacies. Old style, responsible artistry with a sustained and tireless vision.

Pub Date: Feb. 24th, 1971
ISBN: 0307263975
Publisher: Morrow