I managed to finish The Linnet Bird, but frankly it was a struggle. The author has clearly done a lot of homework on historical and cultural details, but then I don’t really want to feel while reading a novel that the author has done a lot of homework–this, of course, has been the frequent objection to Romola, though for me anyway, George Eliot’s homework is always worth our while to contemplate, as it is never at the level of ‘talking points about the English in India’, which is about where Holeman’s seems to stay. I have been working with Henry James’s essay “The Art of Fiction.” At one point, discussing a novel he has recently read that attempts to trace “the development of the moral consciousness of the child,” he sums up his judgment of the attempt as follows:
For myself (since it comes back in the last resort, as I say, to the preference of the individual), the picture of the child’s experience has the advantage that I can at successive steps … say Yes or No, as it may be, to what the artist puts before me. I have been a child … and it is a simple accident that with M. de Groncourt I should have for the most part to say No. With George Eliot, when she painted that country, I always said Yes.
I can sum up my reaction to Holeman’s novel in a similar way: for the most part, I said no to it. Besides the lack of historical sense that I commented on in a previous post (particularly in the characterization of Linny Gow herself), I found the predictably PC plot incredibly tiresome. The English in India are all stupid, shallow imperialists–except Linny herself, who has a remarkably 21st century perception of their stupidity and insensitivity, and does not struggle at all to reconcile that perception with her shock at witnessing suttee. And surprise: she falls in love (well, sort of–she discovers ‘desire,’ as she tells us) with a Pashtun horse whisperer and finds in his primitive camp in Kashmir the sense of community and acceptance she has never found in uptight, pretentious, British society, where she was never allowed to be fully herself….
I really wanted to like this novel, partly out of an odd sense of loyalty to a Canadian author, but on finishing it, my overpowering feeling was relief that I had waited to read it before picking up Holeman’s second novel, prominent on new release shelves everywhere. I think I’ll reread A Passage to India: maybe what Holeman did not do as homework was study her literary predecessors. I’m also curious to take another look at another historical novel by a Canadian author, Pauline Gedge’s The Eagle and the Raven, which years ago was such a favourite of mine that my copy fell completely apart. Would I say yes to this novel, after all this time, and if so, why? (Why, too, are other novels set in the 19th-century so much more persuasive, including Sarah Waters’s brilliant Fingersmith and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White?)