IAN BEDFORD The Last Candles of the Night. Reviewed by Michael Jongen
A man’s past and his complex emotional relationships unravel against a background of Indian history and the Tampa affair.
The Last Candles of the Night is the story of Phillip, an expatriate Australian who in 1950 had been headmaster (and the only teacher) in a small rural school in Hyderabad prior to its absorption into India.
There he met Anand, a Congress Party activist, and Ranjini, a landlord’s daughter working with the Communists to overthrow the Nizam – the Muslim ruler of Hyderabad. Phillip was fascinated by Anand and consumed by Ranjini and became their go-between, enabling their clandestine relationship. Essentially a good man, he was fraught with guilt at bringing the couple together. As Indian troops marched into Hydrabad, Phillip lost contact with them both.
Many years later, he returns to Australia at the time of the Tampa incident to reconnect with his wife Jenny – whom he’d abandoned 50 years ago to go back to India – and to make sense of, and peace with, his past.
His estranged daughter Nora is hostile to his presence in her mother’s house, but his grandson Jim is fascinated by Phillip and encourages him to unwind and articulate his thoughts:
… But Nora had stayed. Her presence threatened to spoil things.
‘I’ll go,’ she said. ‘Jim, this is your house …’
… But she did not go. As if it were her sole pleasure in life and she would not be torn from it, she sat beadily eyeing Phillip. She saw this redhead [Jim’s girlfriend] had been brought by her son for his grandfather, to grace him on his pedestal. She would say nothing, but, all the more eloquent for saying nothing, she would continue to tax him with the lasting and unforgivable dislocation he had brought upon their household.
At 76, Phillip naively believes that he may still have something to offer, and pursues contacts to find a career in education. He avoids all thoughts of Ranjini and Anand until Ranjini appears to him in a vision, and he begins to unravel his past and the complicated emotional relationship among the three of them.
I was excited by the prospect of reading this novel based in India, but written and narrated by an Australian. India has a lot of history, and themes explored by writers such as Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lampiri, Paul Scott and EM Forster are tackled here with an Australian perspective. Bedford explores the violent history attached to the birth of modern India and as we go backwards in time to 1950, we are treated to a rich account of the complexities of the Partition and the relationship between the Hindus and the Muslims. This is for me the most successful part of the novel. Not so successful was the attempt to tie the narrative in with the Tampa affair, and thus contemporary refugee policy.
The novel is well researched and has all the ingredients of a good story. The history is fascinating and the ambiance of the febrile state of Hyderabad prior to its annexation by India is palpable. There is also an interesting and mysterious love story at the heart of the novel.
Unfortunately, Philip is rather a dull and ponderous fellow in many ways, and his internal dilemmas are hard to get excited about.
Anand remains an enigmatic figure who has no real voice in the novel. His fate is a mystery that Phillip and Jenny have never discussed. Jenny welcomes Philip back into her life but turns inwards, into her past, and her voice ends the novel:
‘I think why he came to me at last,’ said Jenny, ‘I think he came to share, just to share his thoughts and his memories. He wanted to speak them out loud. It was not even confirmation he was after, I think, just exchange.’
‘Exchange of thoughts.’
‘Thoughts, places. I’m the only one who knows some of these things.’
This story is about two people reconnecting with that piece of the past that in the end means the most to them. While interesting, it is rarely compelling, however the rewards are there for readers to enjoy as we observe the minute contemplation of two lives lived over two countries.
Ian Bedford The Last Candles of the Night Lacuna 2014 PB 228pp $27.50
Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen and microblogs at http://larrythelibrarian.tumblr.com
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