Let me just say up front that The Raj Quartet, the sweeping tale of the twilight years of the British Empire on the Indian sub-continent that is calleLet me just say up front that The Raj Quartet, the sweeping tale of the twilight years of the British Empire on the Indian sub-continent that is called by some "The English War and Peace", has entered the Velma Canon of 5★-faves with some of the best writing and one of the greatest epic sagas I've read to date. So, now you know where I stand here.
This volume collects the final two novels in the Quartet, continuing the temporally and spatially flexible storytelling style Scott used in The Jewel in the Crown and The Day of the Scorpion. Personally, I love stories that jump around in time and space, but if that isn't your bag, this work isn't for you; Scott weaves the big picture tapestry together in a non-linear way that switches warp and weft at will.
In part 3, The Towers of Silence, the story is retold & extended primarily from the perspective of Barbie Batchelor, a previously relatively minor figure that was friends with Edwina Crane in the previous novels. Barbie's character tells the story in a way that reminded me at times of poetry, at other times of a stream-of-consciousness inner dialogue; there are also epistolary passages and diary entries to mix things up a bit. Her story is the most personally poignant to me, but that may just be because it's been awhile since I read the previous volumes.
The last installment, A Division of the Spoils, was the funniest for me (at least until the final climactic, devastating episode). Narrated mostly by male characters, it struck me that Scott might have been contrasting masculine and feminine perspectives in Volume 2: in TToS, the story was explicated predominantly by women in the voices of Barbie, Mabel, Sarah, Susan, Mildred, et. al, whereas in ADotS mainly men (primarily Perron and Rowan) relayed the story. In both cases, I was struck by the pathos evinced by all the characters. Focusing on one of the sexes at a time was an interesting literary strategy that I might not have noticed if I hadn't read these back-to-back, but I thought it was very effective and unusual for a male writer of Scott's time.
One of the things I find surprising when I read criticisms (most notably by Salman Rushdie) of The Raj Quartet is the claim that because Scott portrayed the pervasive racism of the period, he must have been a racist himself. I don't know how you could read Scott and believe that. For me, everything about all four novels screamed how disturbed Scott was by all the racial (as well as class) warfare on all sides; this story wasn't just decrying British-vs-Indian discrimination, but also Hindu-on-Muslim, Muslim-on-Hindu, everyone-on-Sikh, Upstairs-vs-Downstairs...the list of hatreds was boundless, and it was clear, at least to this reader, that Scott was appalled by it all. In fact, I believe that was the point of his Quartet.
But, issues of racism aside, my biggest complaint about the complainers (cough)Rushdie(cough) is the beef that Indians are given a backseat to Brits in the telling here. I think that is a patently unfair criticism; The Raj Quartet is clearly Scott's attempt to tell the British story of post-Amritsar India, not the Indian story of that period. Given that, it's no wonder that the native characters are, as Sir Rushdie pointed out in his diatribe against both literary and cinematic portrayals of Indians under the Raj as "bit-players in their own history". Come on.
Finally, I'll leave you with Scott's words, my paean to the beauty of The Raj Quartet...
"I walk home, thinking of another place, of seemingly long endless summers and the shade of different kinds of trees, and then of winters when the branches of the trees were so bare, that recalling them now, it seems inconceivable to me that I looked at them and did not think of the summer just gone, and the spring soon to come, as illusions; as dreams, never fulfilled, never to be fulfilled."