The Cats of Benares

The Cats of Benares - Charlotte Jay,  Geraldine Halls Say, isn’t that Anthony Bourdain on the cover? Why yes, yes it is. Okay, no it really isn’t, but it does look remarkably like him, especially after watching 30 or 40 episodes of No Reservations on Netflix.

Celebrity chefs aside, let’s get down to the real review. I’m going to describe this novel as an anti-romance. There are many of the ingredients of standard romance novels – relationships and sex and affairs and an exotic location – but no one ends up living happily ever after. Geraldine Halls a.k.a. Charlotte Jay does this sort of writing very well: the stupid things that husbands and wives talk about when they have nothing real to talk about, and the monotony of the fights they keep having over and over when they’re trying to avoid saying what they’ve been saying all along, that the marriage isn’t working. If Richard and Pamela had only gotten a divorce, tragedy could have been avoided. However, two people don’t just fall out of love with each other at the same time, or in this case, completely stop caring about the other person. Pamela either pretends not to know, or really doesn’t know, about Richard’s affairs. When she is told about them directly, and in greatly-exaggerated terms, she goes crazy. In the cat episode at the beginning of the novel, Pamela apparently also goes crazy, but we are deliberately denied the details of what happens then, so that we will be surprised at the end of the novel.

The major theme of this novel that I saw, was that small, seemingly unimportant decisions can lead to serious consequences. Helen’s decision to go with the Bradens on their daytrip, Krishan’s practical joke on Giles, and Richard staying up drinking with Fred until 4 a.m. There’s also Shankar’s letter to Pamela, which was intended to have serious consequences and hurt Richard, but I’m sure Shankar never imagined what would actually happen. The novel was never actually boring, but I was beginning to wonder where it was going, when a little over ¾ of the way through there is the car accident and the horrible violence that follows. Wham, it just hits you like, well, like a car hitting a cow. I was not prepared for that to happen, and the tone becomes much darker, and it pulls the characters out of their hedonistic lifestyle. The tone throughout the rest of the novel remains pretty bleak, but there are funny moments, like no one being able to track down Fred in America, and him trying to bring the stupid electric egg mixer into the country. They live in a hotel – they don’t even cook any of their own meals.

I was pleased with the novel overall, but the two switches in perspective bugged me. The prologue is told in the first person, and it sounds like it is an acquaintance of Richard’s and Pamela’s, telling the story of the cat incident to another fellow traveler in India. If this narrator is supposed to be any of the characters we meet later in the novel, I could never figure out who it might me. Then the majority of the novel is told from Richard’s perspective. Until he follows Helen, and seems to enter her brain, reporting everything from her perspective during the daytrip/car accident scenes. Then it switches back to Richard’s regular fist person. This wasn’t a huge problem for me, but enough to annoy me and throw me off balance when the switches occurred.

I suppose I should mention the homosexuality portrayed in the novel. It kind of surprised me, since that was still pretty taboo in the 1960s, but I was also a little confused. Giles is supposed to be gay, definitely I think, since Pamela calls him a “queer.” But then he has this sort of weird, ambiguous relationship with Krishan, who is only 17 to Giles’ 39. What kind of teenage boy is going to let a man old enough to be his father run his fingers through his hair? If Krishan isn’t into that, then it’s really weird and creepy. Maybe there was only so much Halls could say and still get the book published, but then masturbation is mentioned at least twice. And we have Otto, the German pedophile, who thankfully never molests a child that we see, but his eyes are always following the girl children as they play.

I liked this book better than some of Halls/Jay’s others, and I think she does a really good job here of portraying human emotion and how people act and react to various events in their lives. I also really enjoyed her thrillers The Stepfather and The Fugitive Eye.