Roving tales reveal hidden depths
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Little, Brown, £13.99
Although she is now in her 85th year, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's output of books and s creenplays has slackened only slightly with the passage of time, and her powers of observation and storytelling remain undimmed.
The author of Heat And Dust, awarded the 1975 Booker Prize, and Oscar-winning screenwriting colleague of James Ivory and Ismael Merchant, Jhabvala was born in Cologne to Jewish parents, escaping to England in 1939 and later marrying and setting up home with her husband in Delhi. She now lives in New York and, appropriately for a writer who has slipped between cultures all her life, enjoys dual British and American nationality.
This new book contains 11 stories, the settings of which range from the 1950s to the present day and, like their author's roving life, are split between India, the US and London. They aren't interconnected, but Jhabvala's lifelong status as an outsider informs them all. She distrusts surfaces, being well aware that what we are seeing is all too often what we are projecting on to them. But surfaces can be seductive, whatever motives may lurk beneath.
In the opening story, Innocence, a young American woman finds her guru in India, to the annoyance of her housemate, who complains that westerners like her are not seeing the real India at all. The allure of the subcontinent is found in Pagans too, in which a Californian widow falls for a regal young Indian man whom she believes to be of an ancient and noble family. In both stories, though, characters with their own agendas are waiting in the wings to muddy the waters. The theme of guru and disciple recurs in School Of Oriental Studies, with a translator becoming seduced into an obsession with the poetess she's studying. It's not always glamour and mystique that allow someone into your life, but misunderstanding too. The story Talent shows a young English female singer infiltrating an upmarket but dysfunctional family by exploiting their difficulties in communicating with each other.
A mistress of her art, Jhabvala can seem to strip her characters bare while allowing them to retain their essential mystery, and A Lovesong For India gives her a cast that's both varied and colourful.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, centre, with her colleagues Ismail Merchant and James Ivory