How befitting that I’ve been reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, a novel set in the English countryside, in a quiet Malaysian city named after Britain’s King George III, Georgetown in Penang. It’s a place so unparallel to Asian city: trishaws can still be seen plying the streets flanked by Chinese-style clan houses and At the lounge of the colonial Eastern & Oriental Hotel, which had hosted prominent guests like Hesse, Kipling, and Maugham, I’m sipping Lady Grey and having finger sandwiches, mulling over proper things an Englishman like Major Pettigrew values: honor, duty, decorum, and a proper cup of tea. Chamomile is not real tea, says the Major.
A visit to the local English-language bookstore of course has given my homeward bound luggage more weight. But how can you resist these beautiful UK paperback editions? (Almost all bookstores in Asia rely on and are stocked by distributors in the British Commonwealth.)
I started reading Skippy Dies. I know I’m supposed to read the shortlist of Independent Literary Awards since I’m one of the judges. This book is just intriguing as soon as I flip open the first page. Set in a boarding school in the British Isles, reverent children huddle in a gloomy chamber, watching as one of their fellow students, hands aflutter, assays a devilishly difficult trick that results in a jet of fire, some “cold and beautiful purple-blue enchantment.” It’s almost like Hogwarts but not quite. No magic wand to bring back the dead. No Voldemort to rid of Muggle. The Booker Prize shortlisted book chronicles a single catastrophic autumn at Seabrook from many perspectives: students, teachers, administrators, priests, girlfriends, doughnut shop managers. At the center of it all is Daniel Juster, known as Skippy, whose death—on the floor of a donut shop, just after writing his beloved’s name on the floor in raspberry filling, opens the novel. It’s great read so far, and justifies my placing a heavy bet on its winning, despite its loss to The Finkler Question.