Heat and Dust – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

India always changes people and I have been no exception

Heat and Dust is a book I’ve had on my mental could read list for a while. Being a Booker winner, a movie and set in India, I think I was expecting it to be a bit of an epic, something I might need to psych myself up for. Obviously I didn’t know much about it because it is not like that at all – it is a short, easy to read book that I sat down with (well lay down with really from the comfort of my bed!) in the morning, and was finished by lunchtime.

The book is set in Satipur, India and tells the story of two women, half a century apart. Olivia’s story takes place in 1923, during the time of the British Raj. She is in India with her husband Douglas, a junior official in the British Government. Satipur is the capital of Khatm, a province the British are seeking authority over, currently under the governance of a Nawab – a provincial governor, an Indian prince. It is the relationship between the Nawab, the British government officials and Olivia especially, with it’s political and personal tensions that make up this first story. We know at the beginning that Oliva eventually leaves her husband to be with the prince.

In the 1970’s, the granddaughter of Douglas travels to India to retrace Olivia’s footsteps and find out what happened to her. She had never returned to England. The narrator (who is not named) has the intimate letters Olivia had sent to her sister as a starting point. She visits the same places Olivia visited and her experiences although taking place in post colonial India, in many ways mirror those of her grandfather’s first wife.

This was a great book to read as an introduction to life in India under British rule from a British point of view. It didn’t paint the most flattering picture of the whole experience. Olivia as a new arrival felt foreign and out of place even among the fellow wives, who had been there for years and knew everything there was to know about India. When difficulties arose, her options were too limited. There was a certain lack of respect by the British toward the servants, the Nawab and the local customs.

Despite Olivia and the Nawab’s obvious attraction for each other, I didn’t find this to be a great love story. In a different setting it could even have been quite ordinary. Their relationship was a result I thought of the unsatisfactory environment they found themselves in. The combination of setting and story with the behind the scenes maneuvering was what made it enjoyable.

I liked it a lot and look forward to reading more novels set in India. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is high on that list – it appears on so many book award lists, I’m expecting it to be wonderful!

Winner of the Booker Award in 1975

Read for the Global reading, Book Awards 4, Decades, Support Your Local Library and Take Another Chance challenges

1975, 181 pages


14 responses to “Heat and Dust – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

  1. This book sounds like a great read. Thanks for showcasing this little-known Booker Award winner. I’ll have to put this one on my reading wishlist.

  2. This sounds wonderful. I love books set in India during this period but somehow this one had escaped me. Definitely going on the TBR list!

    • Claire – It has definitely piqued by interest in reading more from this period as well. I’m looking forward to doing some exploring as I think this is the first book like this I have read. Hope you enjoy it too!

  3. I have this one on my Booker Challenge list (I read a short story of hers last year and really liked it), so your review delighted me! 🙂

  4. A Fine Balance is my all-time favourite book, so I hope you love it as much as I did.

    I have a copy of this book as I am trying to read the Bookers too. I am pleased that you enjoyed it and look forward to reading it too!

    • Jackie – wow, how wonderful to have an all time favourite book and what a special read it must have been. I can’t wait to see what it is like. I haven’t read many books set in India, Shantaram was the last one before this I think.

      I hope you enjoy Heat and Dust too!

  5. This sounds like a very interesting work-I am slowly getting more into the south Asian novel-thanks for sharing this book with us

  6. I’ve often wondered about her books since she also writes screenplays of some movies I’ve loved. You might also look for Rumer Godden’s books set in India–I’ve not read them, but I love her other work and plan on reading them at some point. I’m adding this book to my lists as well!

  7. Danielle – oh thank you for the Rumer Godden recommendation. I recognise the name and will look out for her books. I imagine there is a whole world of wonderful books set in India waiting to be discovered! I hope you enjoy Heat and Dust too.

  8. I liked your post and loved the book myself. I am an Indian myself, so it was good to see how a foreigner would react to the Indian experience….I left a detailed review at http://www.book-review-circle.com/heat-and-dust-ruth-prawer-jhabvala.html

  9. I will have to add this novel to my reading list. Thanks for this very helpful review !!

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