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[334] Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson

” I have no idea what I hope to accomplish. I only know that I must try to see her. That’s what love is about, Roger. It’s when a woman drives all lucid thought from your head; when you are unable to contrive romantic strategems, and the usual manipulations fail you; when all your carefully laid plans have no meaning and all you can do is stand mute in her presence. ” [20:298]

In the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary in the English countryside lives Major Earnest Pettigrew. Having been a widower for six years, the retired major is bereaved by another loss: his brother’s recent passing. To his dismay, the reason for the sharper grief he has felt than he did during the first days of mourning is his chewing on the grievance over the two Churchills, which were split between him and his brother. He has been consumed with disappointment that his father didn’t bequest him both guns.

Leading a quiet life, and clinging on to civility from a bygone era, Major Pettigrew refrains from meddling in the affairs of the people in the community, whose snobbishness and self-righteousness he can’t tolerate. The shared loss of spouse and love of literature have become a useful connection between the major and Mrs. Jasmina Ali, whose refined but adorably straight-forward manner is perfectly aligned to the major’s dignified decorum. Their relationship has developed a gravitational pull, compounded by book readings and meetings for tea. But in the face of disparity in status, culture, and tradition, how would they steer this relationship to the safe harbor?

The Major sensed that Mrs. Ali was tethered to the village by only the slightest of connections. A little more pressure from her husband’s family, another slight from an ungrateful villager, and she might be ripped away. Most people would not even take the time to notice. [8:113]

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, through the relationship of the major and Mrs. Ali, evokes the agelessness of love. Despite her being a Pakistani born and raised in England, village society insists on regarding her as the permanent foreigner. As a grocery shopkeeper she is no match to the social elite, and that she reads more Kipling and classics doesn’t help, she is no more than a convenience at best. Against the backdrop of a village whose fate is up in the air as local estate might be converted into a luxurious housing development, fanned by greedy young financiers (the Major’s son included) whose false, money-driven values are in defiance of the concerns and beliefs from an older generation, a late-life romance slowly derives. Sensitively portrayed are the gulf between father and son over moral values, as well as the pressures of Pakistani family life.

[Roger] don’t know. But we’ve gone from being the right sort of people to be a strange bunch with a circus of hangers-on. For God’s sake, one’s Pakistani and one’s tipsy—what were you thinking? [10:135]

Is that any more absurd than assuming my father has suddenly become friendly with half the population of Pakistan? [13:172]

So it is true, Jasmina, that you ran away from your [husband’s] family in order to fornicate and debauch yourself. [24:337]

As much as the Major wants to steer the relationship clear of the village’s social politics, Mrs. Ali finds herself plunging into the ordinary activities of the village ladies. As a gala culminates in a denouement that is what the worst of cultural clash may entail, the lovers are confronted with barriers that they are either to overcome or to back off from. With sensitivity and delicacy, the novel explores the truth about interpersonal relationship and how love should transcend social status and material objects. Love should be unvarnished, free of calculations, ulterior motive, and should evoke from the bottom of the heart.

368 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is shortlisted for Independent Literary Awards: Literary Fiction.