Posted by: billpurdue | November 3, 2010

A new life for Major Pettigrew

When you read a first novel by a new writer, it’s a little bit like exploring the unknown. Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand [Bloomsbury £12.99 978-1408804254] is a case in point. It’s not a novel that can be slotted into a particular category.

Major Pettigrew (retired) lives quietly in the genteel village of Edgecombe St Mary, but his life is about to change when the lady from the paper shop, Mrs Ali, calls for his paper money. Over the course of several weeks he discovers that he and Mrs Ali (Jasmina), who now runs the shop, her husband having died recently, have a common interest in literature and in Kipling in particular. The beginnings of a romance begin to appear, but Mrs Ali runs the paper shop with the help of her very religious nephew, Abdul Wahid, who is suspicious of any hint of a liaison.

The Major’s acquaintances in the village have noticed that he and Mrs Ali have been seeing each other quite often recently, giving rise to gossip.  Mrs Ali’s family intend that Abdul Wahid should run the shop and that Mrs Ali should return to the bosom of her family in the north to be looked after, but in reality she would be obliged to spend a lot of time looking after the grandmother.

The Major’s son, Roger, is a very ambitious city banker as well as being tactless, crass, stupid plus a lot of other unglamorous qualities. He decides to move into a cottage locally all with an eye to ingratiating himself into the village life amongst the well to do in the locality. Roger joins the golf club, of which his father is also a member, and things wind up towards a climax when  a special dinner dance is arranged at the club, attended by anyone who is anyone in the village, including the Major who escorts Mrs Ali.

The story of how the situation is resolved is complicated, but absorbing. I have to admit that the story seemed to be rather slow moving until I reached about halfway through, but then the pace quickened and near the end there are some cliff-hanging moments (read it and you’ll see what I mean). This is a novel with many twists and turns; it’s a love story, but it also touches on the themes of class distinction, race and religion without becoming too embroiled in any one issue. If you also find it a bit slow going at first, persevere and you’ll find it very rewarding.

A spot of Non-fic

I’ve been doing a lot of browsing lately (nothing new about that) and two titles attracted my attention. The first is about hedgehogs. In A Prickly Affair – my life with hedgehogs [Allan Lane  £14.99 978-1846140655] by Hugh Warwick, the author writes about his experiences with hedgehogs, their natural history, keeping hedgehogs (something which Mr Warwick discourages) and how hedgehogs were removed from the Scottish island of North Ronaldsay because they were, it was claimed,  eating seabirds’ eggs and the young. Other topics include hedgehog recipes – or at least something about eating hedgehogs – to which one reviewer on Amazon took a strong objection. There is also a paperback version of this book, which has a different subtitle: it appears that the content is the same.

Now to maps: I love looking at maps and especially Ordnance Survey maps, of which I have quite a few. I was therefore attracted to a new history of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt called Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey [Granta £25 978-1847080981] . This book claims to be the first popular history of the Ordnance Survey map from its beginnings in 1791. It’s been described as “deliciously readable”, dealing as it does with political revolutions, rebellions with tales of intrepid people carrying heavy mapping equipment up mountains and into other treacherous places. It doesn’t have many illustrations and there are about 60 pages of references, just in case you want to do some further reading, so I suppose that qualifies it for a place on the bookshelves of university libraries. That said, I wouldn’t mind having a copy myself. You can read a review of Dr Hewitt’s book in The Guardian online.

Next time – cuts in library services: what on earth are they thinking about?

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