There’s an overwhelming sense of the familiar about Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand that Indian readers will find comfortable and immediately agreeable — likely borne of a conditioned predisposition towards Wodehousian comedies set in little English villages. Indeed, first-time author Simonson’s literary inflections and mannerisms often resemble a close-study of the English humourist’s style (ie, “her eye beady as a gull eyeing a bag of garbage”) and technique (the characters’ choreographed banter is strongly reminiscent of Wodehouse). But her delightful debut is elevated beyond mere homage in how it reorients farce and absurdity towards a sincere and surprising tenderness — packaged, of course, in airtight comedy: in one particularly memorable exchange, the titular Major Pettigrew discusses burglars nipping off with his mother’s prized clematis in the 1970s and says, “Part of a larger crisis in the culture, of course. My mother blamed it on decimalisation.”
At its core, the novel relates the romance between the Major, whose wife died six years ago, and Mrs Ali, a widowed shopkeeper of Pakistani descent. Buttressed by a supporting cast of rather conventional friends and neighbours — the haughty and insufferable Daisy Green, the well meaning but bumbling Grace DeVere, the interfering busybody Alice Pierce and Pettigrew’s self-absorbed banker son, Roger — the Major begins to feel the village close in on him as he grows closer to Mrs Ali, who is met with uniform frigidity in the small community.
Though Simonson happily avails herself of generic convenience in place of sustained characterisation, the book’s Daisys and Graces are rendered with a playful sense of self-awareness that give them real depth and a purpose beyond serving as simple plot devices. She has no need to invest in developing these characters because we already know who they are — we’ve encountered them in countless iterations of the ‘English village novel’. What surprises, however, is how effectively Simonson’s light strokes come together to form a complete picture: instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, she simply builds an apparatus around it.
Simonson treats the central conflict of petty suburban prejudice and racism with sensitivity, humour, and admirable understatement. Like Mrs Ali, the Major is himself rather out of place among the village’s other residents, not nearly as parochial in worldview nor provincial in bigotry, and is genuinely surprised at the reaction his courtship of the Muslim woman generates. Refreshingly, there is no transformative epiphany at the end of the novel lamely attempting to fill these very real cracks in England’s multicultural façade with an “I’m OK, you’re OK” gloss — the Vicar, of all people, apologises for his views against interracial marriage but says he won’t change.
That l’amour must triumph is a foregone conclusion, but what makes the book so enjoyable is the path it takes: a vindictive sister-in-law clawing at inheritance, a brash American fiancée, an even brasher American property developer, a bankrupt Lord mulling over handing over village land for the creation of a new model village, a pair of priceless Churchill rifles… Where the book ultimately succeeds is in its humane sensibility and Simonson’s wonderful economy of language — there’s scarcely a word out of place or a superfluous phrase. By no means a demanding read, the novel harkens back to when ‘light reading’ wasn’t shorthand for ‘light writing’.