Endearing characters and an unconventional plot make for an enjoyable read ...
'Charming' is the adjective that springs to mind when you open the pages of Helen Simonson's debut novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.
As you read, the old-fashioned word continues to describe the writing and the tone of the tale - and it remains the description of choice when you finish the book and put it down. In its gentle optimism, Major Pettigrew recalls Alexander McCall Smith's droll yarns; in its wit, Jane Austen's acutely observed narratives; and in its fussily precise evocation of Englishness, something of an Agatha Christie whodunit.
Not that Simonson's novel has any mysteries lurking – and nor is it stuck in time. No sooner have we been drawn in by the genteel pleasures and eccentricities of Edgecombe St. Mary and its inhabitants, than we find that today's world has invaded the village via property developers and fundamentalists.
But first, within the amusingly quaint setting, we meet our hero, the eponymous Major Ernest Pettigrew, who is a gentleman in the true sense of the word: “I was raised,” he says calmly, “to believe in politeness above all.”
When we are introduced to the 68-year-old widower, he is improbably clad in a bright-pink floral robe and trying to cope with the pain of his brother dying. Soon he will also confront annoying relatives who want to deny him a valuable Churchill sporting gun belonging to his brother that should, by right, now pass to him. How he schemes to retrieve possession of the gun – without relinquishing the moral high ground – results in one of the novel's amusing plotlines. But the heart of the novel is a love story. Despite possessing the accoutrements of the typical English villager – from being a retired army man who lives in a home called Rose Lodge, to finding true comfort in a well-made pot of tea – the Major is actually somewhat unconventional in his outlook.
Not least, in terms of his attraction for the lovely Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani widow who runs the local village shop. They share a love for English literature, are admirers of Kipling, and it's a beautifully written account of a slowly simmering relationship where neither party really wishes to create a public spectacle of their love, or upset conventions. As the Major observes in a different context, “Passion is all very well, but it wouldn't do to spill the tea.”
Both would-be lovers are perfectly aware that all hell would break loose if they raise the stakes and convert the friendship into a romantic liaison. After all, these cross-cultural goings-on meet with no-one's approval, whether the busybody village ladies or Mrs Ali's Muslim fundamentalist nephew. If some of these characters feel as though they have been rescued from the recycle bin of Archetypal English Villager, others such as the widowed protagonists come through as very real people, in whose problems we want to get involved.
Major Pettigrew's problems include his strained relationship with son Roger, a London financier who possesses none of his father's charm and falls into the category of grown-up children who “infantilize their own parents and wish them dead or at least in assisted living.”
On a larger scale, the village itself faces problems posed by Americans who wish to redevelop the land. They invade all aspects of life in the village – even the golf club, much to the Major's annoyance: “Two Americans in as many weeks, was, he reflected, approaching a nasty epidemic.” The clash of cultures results in two hilarious set pieces. One is the golf club's annual dinner and dance with the unfortunate choice of Mughal Empire as its theme; the other is a shooting party at the estates of the impoverished Lord Dagenham, who rents out a part of his home to a boys' school.
The Major has no high expectations of the themed dinner-dance – “I'm tired of wearing my dinner suit and having people ask me what I'm supposed to be” – but it turns out to be an even greater disaster than just being a crashing bore.
It's a real strength of Simonson's writing that tragedy and comedy are deeply intermixed together. For example, if we empathise with the Major's annoyance and hurt over his son's shallowness, we are also able to see its humorous side. It's only in some of the novel's much darker areas - such as when prejudices tip over into actual violence - that the reader doesn't feel in quite as secure hands. Otherwise, the author's lightness of touch makes for very pleasurable reading. Wryly sensitive, Simonson treads the fine line between having fun with – and gently poking fun at – her various characters. Her sense of enjoyment in their world is infectious and we are happy to go along on a ride filled with eccentricity and whimsy that never fails to be, well, charming. That adjective again.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand; Helen Simonson; Bloomsbury.