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Review: The Far Cry, by Emma Smith

Pages: 324

Original date of publication: 1949

My edition: 2007 (Persephone)

Why I decided to read: It’s been on my TBR pile since I purchased it six months ago

How I acquired my copy: from the Persephone shop, September 2009

The Far Cry was inspired by the author’s experiences in India. In 1945, at the age of 21, Emma Smith (who describes herself as “a green young woman” in her preface to this edition) traveled to India with a film production crew as a junior script writer/gopher. While she was there, Smith kept a journal of her experiences and thoughts to detail her “magical Cinderella-like transformation” into a worldlier person. In the preface of the novel, Emma Smith writes brilliantly about what kind of impact her travels to India had upon her, a first-time visitor. What she wrote in her journal went largely into the writing of this novel; and the stronger it is for it, I think, because this is an absolutely stunning book.

When Mr. Digby’s ex wife returns from America, he’s absolutely certain that she’s coming to take their daughter, Teresa, away from him; and so he pulls her out of school in order to go to India, where Mr. Digby’s other daughter from a previous marriage, Ruth, lives with her husband. The novel’s progress takes its reader on the boat journey out to India; to Bombay; to Calcutta; and then, finally, to Assam near the Naga hills, where Ruth’s husband, Edwin, is a tea planter.

My goodness, what a gorgeous book! I’ve never been to India, but this novel certainly makes me want to go. The people and places of India are described in painstaking detail, as only a first-time visitor to India could describe it. They’re probably some of the best descriptions of India written by a Westerner that I’ve ever read (Emma Smith is right up there with MM Kaye in that respect, though they wrote about different time periods and people). In a sense, though, The Far Cry is a novel not so much about India as it is about India as it's experienced by the British.

Emma Smith is especially skilled at describing various foreigners’ experiences in India: Ruth and Edwin, who have lived in India for a while and are sort of immune to the place; Teresa, experiencing the angst that comes with adolescence; and the downright boorish Mr. Digby, who imagines something greater for himself than life has given him. The novel is populated with a number of other, minor characters as well: the elderly yet intrepid Miss Spooner; Richard, Edwin’s second-in-command; or Mr. Littleton, who believes implicitly in the superiority of the British over the natives. There’s also Sam, an Indian fellow whose happy complacency instantly warms the reader’s heart. There are a couple of unlikely coincidences in this novel (i.e., running into Miss Spooner by chance in Calcutta, of all the people you could run into in a city of that size), but other than that, I absolutely adored this novel.

This is Persephone no. 33. Endpaper below.


teabird said…
I never heard of this book, and now I want to read it - so much! Stories set the end of the Raj fascinate me, as do writers who kept/keep journals. Persephone Books could break my bank, but - what's a booklover to do? Great review - thanks!
Teddy Rose said…
I loved A Passage to India and this book sounds like one I would really enjoy as well. I hadn't heard of it before so, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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