East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Bhowani Junction, the novel

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fred_pfeiffer_BhowaniI mentioned a few days back that I was going to read John Masters‘ 1954 novel, Bhowani Junction.

The book kept me up late for three nights, basically compromising my already messed-up sleep patterns.
Because yes, it is that good.

Comparison with the 1956 movie featuring Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger was unavoidable, but I’ll concentrate on the novel in this post.

The novel is set in 1946, as the British are facing increasing independentist pressure in India. In the(fictional) railway town of Bhowani Junction, historical events catch up with a number of characters, and in particular with Anglo-Indian Victoria Jones, fresh out of WAC service and in search of her cultural identity in a rapidly changing nation.

If the novel is basically a romantic adventure featuring Victoria and the men around her, Masters uses this plot to weave in various other threads, depicting the growing tensions within the community as underground forces try to sabotage the birth of the new Indian independent nation.

The book is part of a loose series devoted to the members of the Savage family and their experiences in India.

{93C9460B-4BF5-4E78-A12C-351191792C2B}Img100Now, first, the bad – the Storytellers ebook edition of Bhowani Junction was clearly produced from scans of the paper novel; in some places, the OCR software mixed up a few characters, and weird words pop up in the story. In a novel already filled with Indian words and military slang, it took me a while to realize that “hak” was actually a badly-scanned “hair”, and “chak” was similarly just a bad-spelled “chair”.
Typos like these pop up pretty often.
No great problem, but a nuisance, hard to accept in a commercial, professionally-produced ebook.

But a few typos can’t reduce the impact Masters’ writing.

The characters are masterfully (ah!) drawn – they are complex in their simplicity, well rounded, interesting and provocative. The historical detail is spot on, as is the description of Indian culture and society.
We see the story unravel through three major viewpoint characters, and in this the author’s control and skill really shine.

Penguin-1439-b Masters Bhowani JunctionThe novel opens with the viewpoint of Patrick Taylor, a clumsy, unpleasant loser. His mix of recrimination, self-justification and racism make this part somewhat unpleasant1 – and yet, the unpleasantness is finely designed and plotted – Masters drops us in the shoes of a biased character to introduce us to the set-up, and when he gets rough, he does so on purpose, in the service of the story.
When we shift into the viewpoint of Victoria, a smart, intelligent, passionate woman, the change in style, rhythm, even in syntax, is so sharp and dramatic it feels like a slap in the face.

As the story proceeds to its surprising finale, Masters pulls his trick once again, and we shift again point of view, getting in the head of Colonel Savage. Interestingly enough, the army man is in charge of the narration of the romantic part of the story, creating another sharp contrast.

And yes, this is a love story, but Bhowani Junction is no romance in the current sense of the term, it’s not a bodice ripper.
We are a million light years away from the adolescent drivel that seems to be popular right now2, and the whole affair has a distinct adult feel. And by adult I mean we’re dealing with believable adult individuals, not teenage cardboard characters.
The result is subtle, classy and powerful.

An adult love story, a strangely naturalistic adventure story (distinctively pulp-free), a historical thriller and a snapshot of history-in-the-making, Bhowani Junction has been one of the best reading experiences of the last few months, despite the haks and chacks popping up here and there.
Now I have to get me more Masters.
I’m pretty sure this cannot be a fluke, and I have high expectations for the other books in the series.

  1. also, Masters is not politically correct at all, and it feels weird 
  2. at least, judging from Amazon hit lists and such 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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