Book Review: Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

HeatandDustAbout the Book

Heat and Dust is set in India, the story of Olivia, beautiful, spoilt, bored who outrages society in the tiny, suffocating town where her husband is a civil servant, by eloping with an Indian prince – and of her step-granddaughter who, 50 years later, goes back to the heat, the dust and the squalor of the Satipur bazaars to solve the enigma of Olivia’s scandal.

Format: Paperback (181 pp.)               Publisher: Futura
Published: 1st January 1983 [1975]   Genre: Fiction

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My Review

Heat and Dust is the book selected from my Classics Club list as a result of the latest Classics Club Spin #18.  I’d been looking forward to reading it, not least because Ruth Prawer Jhabvala wrote the screenplays for wonderful films such as A Room With A View and Howards End, and a personal favourite of mine, The Remains of the Day.  I’m also drawn to books set in India.  Lastly, because Heat and Dust won the Man Booker Prize in 1975, although admittedly that year there was only one other book on the shortlist – Thomas Keneally’s Gossip From the Forest.   You can understand my disappointment then that I didn’t like Heat and Dust as much as I’d hoped.

Told in alternating story lines from the point of view of Olivia and her step-granddaughter (the narrator), the book moves between the 1920s and the 1970s as the narrator seeks to piece together the story of Olivia, supposedly from her letters and journals (but more of that later) and by retracing her steps, visiting the places Olivia lived in India.  Throughout the book, there is a real sense of history repeating itself in the lives of the two women.  Sometimes it’s a case of mistakes of the past being repeated, sometimes it’s the two women making different choices when faced with the same dilemma and sometimes it’s just the author’s clever inclusion of subtle echoes between the two timelines, such as visits to the same places.

The author evokes the atmosphere of the Indian cities and countryside through which both women travel.  However, they each have quite different responses to the India they encounter.  Olivia’s experience is one of boredom and isolation, of long days spent alone while her husband, Douglas, is at work, mixing just with other Europeans and then only at weekly dinner parties where very little of the culture of India is allowed to intrude.  In a reference to the book’s title, ‘The rest of the time Olivia was alone in her big house with all the doors and windows shut to keep out the heat and dust.’

The narrator’s response is almost the complete opposite.  She embraces the atmosphere of India and, rather than feeling closed in, feels freer than she did back in England, as she emulates her Indian neighbours by sleeping outside at night because of the heat. ‘I lie awake for hours: with happiness, actually.  I have never known such a sense of communion.  Lying like this under the open sky there is a feeling of being immersed in space – though not in empty space, for there are all these people sleeping all around me, the whole town and I am part of it. How different from my often very lonely room in London with only my own walls to look at and my books to read.’    

I suppose I should have felt sympathy for Olivia’s frustration but I’m afraid I couldn’t because she seemed so unprepared to do anything about it that didn’t involve destroying her marriage.  I couldn’t decide if her professed devotion to her husband, Douglas, was actually that or in fact more reliance or dependence on him.  Olivia also comes across as spoiled and self-centered.  For example, when she first encounters the Nawab at a party in his palace and he appears to single her out for attention, her reaction is that ‘here at last was one person in India to be interested in her the way she was used to’.  What?   Similarly, Olivia professes to be ‘by no means a snob’ (she prefers to think of herself as ‘aesthetic’, as if that excuses what follows) but on a visit to the sick Mrs. Saunders, she describes that poor lady as ‘still the same unattractive woman lying in bed in a bleak, gloomy house’.   Also, Olivia muses that Mrs. Saunders’ accent ‘was not that of a too highly educated person’.   Right, so not a snob then.

I also really struggled to understand why Olivia (or anyone else, for that matter) should be  attracted to the Nawab.   He comes across as arrogant and manipulative – bordering on coercive – especially towards Harry, the young Englishman he has supposedly befriended.    At one point, Harry says of the Nawab, ‘He’s a very strong person’, admitting ‘one does not say no to such a person’.   The Nawab seems unashamed of his influence over Harry, to the point of self-righteousness, saying to Olivia and Douglas at one point, ‘But don’t you see, Mr. and Mrs. Rivers, he is like a child that doesn’t know what it wants!  We others have to decide everything for him’.    Olivia is so under the Nawab’s spell, however, that her reaction is – amazingly – to envy Harry ‘for having inspired such a depth of love and friendship’.

At the beginning of the book, the narrator comments that ‘India always changes people, and I have been no exception’.  She goes on to say, ‘But this is not my story, it is Olivia’s as far as I can follow it’. My trouble was that I was never sure exactly by what means the narrator was telling Olivia’s story because the reader is often party to Olivia’s thoughts, and to Douglas’s on some occasions.  Clearly, that insight couldn’t be derived purely from Olivia’s letters and journals.  Furthermore, by the end of the book, how much more does the reader actually know about why Olivia acted the way she did and the consequences of her actions?  Even the narrator admits ‘there is no record of what she [Olivia] became later, neither in our family nor anywhere else as far as I know.  More and more I want to find out…’   You and me both, I thought.

Heat and Dust is interesting from the point of view of comparing the experiences of India by two women separated by fifty years and I liked the way the author created echoes of the earlier timeline in the later one.  However, I found it difficult to engage with the key characters and some of their actions and attitudes.

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In three words: Descriptive, atmospheric, uneven

Try something similar…Staying On by Paul Scott (read my review here)


Ruth Prawer JhabvalaAbout the Author

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, CBE was a Booker prize-winning novelist, short story writer, and two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter. She was perhaps best known for her long collaboration with Merchant Ivory Productions, made up of director James Ivory and the late producer Ismail Merchant. Their films won six Academy Awards.

She fled Cologne with her family in 1939 and lived through the London Blitz. After university she moved to Delhi, India her home for 24 years (until 1975). She began to write fiction, exploring east-west encounters, and won the Booker prize. Based in New York until she died in 2013, she is best known for her Oscar-winning screenplays and her novel Heat and Dust.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

  1. Ahhh this is such a shame, I was planning on adding it to my tbr wishlist – like you, I have a thing for Indian lit (& the 1983 movie has Gretha Scacchi and Julie Christie!)
    Have you seen it? It looks llike it was another Merchant/Ivory production that Jhabvala wrote the screenplay for.

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    1. No, I haven’t seen the film but I’m intrigued to see it now to find out if any of the weak points I found in the book come across better in the film. And, of course, the author would have the freedom to change things when writing the screenplay. Quite tempting don’t you think, however happy you were with your original book?

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