I had three choices for Persephone Reading Week after a little library spree, and was attracted to read The Far Cry, by Emma Smith first because of the beautiful, evocative language used in the excerpt (see previous post), which describes the book’s characters, stepping out into the streets of Calcutta at night-time. Reading the full story, I discovered that this was just a small sample of Smith’s excellent prose.
At the beginning of The Far Cry, Teresa a young girl is pulled out of school by her father – Mr Digby, who is terrified that his second wife, now divorced is going to take her away from him. It is a surprising and dramatic reaction considering that he doesn’t seem to be very emotionally attached to his daughter. In fact, in the passages that describe them being together it is clear that Teresa, a sort of inward-looking and sometimes spiteful child, has really missed having a caring, feminine figure to look after her. Teresa and Mr Digby set off to India where they plan to stay with Ruth, (Mr Digby’s eldest daughter from his first marriage) who is both beautiful and serene – the two qualities he admires both in a woman. The journey, by boat and across land from Bombay to an out-of-the-way place not far from Calcutta is a long one. During the trip Teresa encounters other young children who she sort of adopts and then discards. It is as if she desires admiration, and finds unattractive little children that she can influence to make herself feel in control. That is until she meets Miss Spooner, an elderly spinster on the last leg of the trip and strikes up a fleeting but important friendship before landing on the shores of the new land. On reaching India they part, lost in the hustle and bustle of Calcutta. Teresa and Mr Digby continue their journey to see Ruth and her husband Edwin who are experiencing their own relationship problems.
The Far Cry really is a journey, emotionally as well as physically for Teresa. The sights and sounds in the story are inspired by the authors own experiences (at the age of 23, Emma Smith went to India with a film crew that included Laurie Lee), but as she states in the preface that the characters she created were fictitious characters, although she later realised that Teresa “…had a good deal of me in her personality”. Smith wrote a diary on her trip and later used it to conjure up the sights and sounds of India in The Far Cry. I felt it was really lucky that she had captured her experiences at the time so that they could be woven into this story.
Smith’s prose really is gorgeous. The metaphors she uses never feel strained and her descriptions are full and invoke all the senses. Below is a passage from the night that Teresa goes with Miss Spooner to the Kali Puja festival:
“Lights, no bigger than the candles on a Christmas cake, fringed every balcony, every wall, every stall, every hovel, a multitude of tiny red flames flickering alive in the huge dark night. They were still being lit: glistening haunches bent forward, hands poured a trickle of oil into saucers…The warm air was soft with sorrow. They trod among the muddy unseen ashes of the dead. Widows lay along the slushy steps, prostrate in grief, or crouched forward silently setting afloat their candles in little boats of tin the size and shape of withered leaves.”
The nuances of the relationships within the book between Teresa and her father or Miss Spooner, Ruth and Edwin were perfectly balanced. At times I did feel a little frustrated. At the beginning of the book particularly Teresa seems cruel and difficult to understand. The relationship between Ruth and Edwin is painful and I found it was sometimes difficult to empathise with. At times, I did feel as if I was delving into hearts and minds of people who I wasn’t all that bothered about, however I could see that Smith’s way exploring people’s behaviour was clever and sensitive.
The Far Cry is as pretty as a picture but with emotional weight behind it that makes it simultaneously involving and frustrating. While the characters in the story didn’t always strike a chord with me, they were superbly developed and the prose was so vivid that it made me want to pack my bags! A good book to read when you want to be transported to far-away lands.
7.5 out of 10
Have you read any books that make you want to pack your bags and visit a new country?