Ruth Prawer Jhabvala | Critical Review by Molly E. Rauch

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
This section contains 806 words
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Critical Review by Molly E. Rauch

SOURCE: "Other Voices, Other Rooms," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 261, No. 7, September 11, 1995, pp. 244-5.

In the following mixed review of Shards of Memory, Rauch calls the complex relationships of the novel part of a "paradox that … lacks depth."

In her twelfth novel, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala once again addresses the themes of family and history through the premise of a set of old papers. It's a method she cultivated many books and screenplays ago in her Booker Prizewinning Heat and Dust (1975), in which a woman discovers her late step-grandmother's scandalous letters and goes to India to investigate. As in Bharati Mukherjee's more recent Holder of the World (1993), the double-time plot can make for a refreshing reclamation of the past.

But not always. From a cache of scraps and scrawlings, Shards of Memory traces the lives of an American/British/Indian clan with Jhabvala's familiar multicultural ease. A pianist-turned-devotee travels from her lavish New York home to London, where she meets a young Bombay native reciting sticky poetry. They both want to sit at the feet of the Master, their spiritual teacher, who, typically, never shows up. No matter: The disciples marry and have a child, Baby. Baby becomes a wise woman who routinely flies to London to rescue needy relatives. In time, her grandson Henry, crippled by a near-fatal car accident, inherits several trunks stuffed with the Master's polyglot scribblings. His parentage uncertain—the Master may have been his father—Henry delves into the documents in search of this elusive, mango-loving charismatic.

In bits and pieces—shards, of course—Henry learns not only about the Master but also about his family. True to her title, Jhabvala manages to leave out whole chapters of crucial information. Take the Master. Strange thing this: His teachings and preachings are practically absent from the book. For instance, Henry sums them up: "Overcome your self." And Henry's mother, Renata, wanders for so much of her life and this novel is a "vague mist" that we never know what she's thinking, or even if she can.

With gaps such as these, Jhabvala is waving an impatient hand at us. Shoo, she may be saying, I have three more generations to go. And it's true, she occasionally guns the engine of her saga: Three main characters die, one is crippled for life and ten years pass all in the space of three pages. But she also means the gaps.

Her shrewd satire implicates her characters—if not her skill—in the allowance of such holes. Kavi, for example, the patriarch of the family, is a "shriveled sage in white muslin." After he sinks into his "final darkness," his progeny trek to the Hudson River and scatter his ashes, which "seemed to disappear not into the water but into the blaze of light reflected on its surface." Compare this holy departure with the death of the Master, who gorges himself on a decadent feast and drinks bottle after bottle of liquor until, bulging and sweating, he chokes on a piece of meat. "He clutched in his agony at the tablecloth, bringing all the plates, dishes, glasses, bottles, and decanters crashing down with him…. He heaved and retched and swelled till, unable to explode, he imploded." Ugh. His devotees hardly blink at this debauched ending. They are desperate for spiritual fulfillment, and their blind attraction to the Master requires a disregard for details and reasons that mirrors Jhabvala's own disregard for such particulars.

The devotees nevertheless persist in their quest for enlightenment, thwarted by their ambitious dreams of master-hood and their stubborn resistance to change. So many male centerpieces: Besides the spiritual Master, there is Kavi, the florid poet, as the literary master; Henry, the leader of the future, as the intellectual master; and stodgy Graeme, Baby's husband and a rather cloistral Brit, as a patriarchal master.

Women? Well, yes, and women of extraordinary strength. But they all have their masters, spiritual or nuptial, and their masters are men. Even the most tenacious and determined of them all, Baby, speaks her first words in self-deprecating subservience: "I'm not really the right person to tell you anything because my thoughts—if I have any at all, my husband would have said—are not very orderly." That she then goes on to explain immensely complex relationships in a lucid and amusing manner is a paradox, but a paradox that, like much of the novel, lacks depth. If Jhabvala were remarking on such patterns, or exploring their implications, there might be provocative insights borne of this male-centeredness. Instead, themes such as Baby's self-effacement are made to seem inevitable. Thus Jhabvala's fictional family ends up, four generations later, where it started: still crossing signals, still passive in the face of disappointment, still befuddled by missed opportunities. How unmasterly of them all—except the one winking mischievously, waving her hand at us, shooing us on our way.

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This section contains 806 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Molly E. Rauch
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