Coronation Talkies by Susan Kurosawa

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Coronation Talkies by Susan Kurosawa

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A Surrey schoolteacher and a Bombay businesswoman arrive in the slightly decrepit Chalaili in 1937; the one to rescue a British meteorologist from disgrace; the other to open the Talking Picture House. Both have unexpected impacts on the sleepy hill station, where no-one is quite what they seem. A frolic of a tale told with warmth and exuberance. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0141025094

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There's a generation (so I'm told) that thinks that sex was invented in the 1960s and that it was also round about then that women started taking control of their own destinies. Obviously, this is a generation that never talked to their grandmothers and, more assuredly, never talked to their maiden aunts. Those aunts could have told them a tale or two.

In the absence of such conversations Susan Kurosawa offers us a tale of how it might have been ~ of how, in the details over a wider span of time, space and population, one suspects it undoubtedly was.

In the Spring of 1937 two women are heading for the forgotten (and somewhat mouldy) hill station of Chalaili. The place was instituted originally as a sanatorium by medics who had not consulted the meteorologists who could have told them it was indisputably the second wettest place in India, and in some years would wrest the title to itself with a forceful glee. It was utterly unsuitable for such a medical establishment, and had only very speedily passing charm as a respite from the pre-monsoon heat of the plains. Somehow, however, Chalaili has staggered on into the last days of Empire. The Club and the bungalows, the post office and the Metropole hotel with its arcade and Lakshmi Hair & Beauty Salon (announcing the very latest skin-lightening cream), the Loch Fyne Tea Rooms (opening hours unreliable) and "The Strand" all majestically await those who know the hills above Bombay no better than to wind up there.

Lydia Rushmore is a timid Surrey schoolteacher and recently (indecently hastily one might say) acquired wife of William Ellis Rushmore, Meteorologist & Indian Forestry Service Officer, First Class. Why William needed to acquire a wife so quickly, and quite how he might contend with one, is just one strand of the intrigue. Certainly, Lydia does not fit into the strata of debutantes whose circuit includes at least one hunting season in the outposts of the Raj. For one thing she is too old, too plain, too naïve.

She finds herself not exactly welcomed into the society ruled over by the Crows. WAGs (for 'Wives And Girlfriends') might be a new designation, but the influence and milieu are no more new inventions than sex or girl-power.

On the other hand: Lydia reads... and when she discovers that the Empire Club's ladies afternoons allow her access to the library, not to mention unquestioned double G&T's and a small insight into the gossip of the place, a plan begins to form.


If Lydia was not prepared for Chalaili, then it goes without saying that Chalaili was in no way prepared for Mrs Banerjee. Upon her father's death the "very large businesswoman" (to use her own words) and totally smitten fan of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert installed her mother in an apartment in a strangely unattractive block in Bombay, wound up affairs locally and de-camped to take over her newly acquired project: transforming the Elphinstone Theatre into the "Coronation Talkies". Of course, she hadn't expected quite such a run-down non-electric theatre, but she is not the kind of person to be argued with. Larger than life (in every respect) Mrs Banerjee is a woman to get her way by sheer force of personality. Think "Mrs Boo-kay!" in "Keeping Up Appearances". This woman simply terrifies people into submission, by doing no more than expecting that they will do her bidding... and using language in a way that they cannot quite follow. She dresses to suit her own extravagant taste, and exercises every morning for, oh, nearly enough minutes to have no effect at all.

Both women start making their way in their new homes, each in their own inimitable fashion - neither giving a fig for convention. These are the days of agitation. Ghandi is leading the campaign to free India; in Europe the storm clouds of war are gathering. In the hill-stations of the Empire however, the last fifty years have passed many by without a murmur. There are standards, after all.

Are there? Mrs B and Lydia would both ask, with a look of innocent puzzlement.

Coronation Talkies is a book founded on an examination of snobbery. It is about those who bow down to it, those who rise above it and those (like our two central characters) who simply side-step it, as one would a muddy puddle. Both Lydia and Mrs Banerjee have a tendency to treat their servants as friends. Perhaps "colleagues" might be a better word. They expect them to do their job, but beyond that, they are human beings to whom one talks and with whom one shares jokes and problems and life. Not at all the way an Officer and a Gentleman would behave... much less their Wives and Girlfriends. Yet they are not quite immune... Mrs B with her tendency to speak English all the time, only spattered with Hindustani, and Lydia with no concept of the local language or custom, and little inclination to go about acquiring it.

With the whispering breeze of Lydia's slight indiscretions and social faux pas disturbing the by-waters of the Empire set, and the whirlwind of Mrs Banerjee's demands and business exactions blasting through the mainstream Indian contingent of Chalaili society, the carefully constructed façades of decency begin to tumble. Just about everyone around here has a secret. Lust. Or love. Or simple business opportunism. Everyone is just making their way the best they can... not always within the bounds.

I mentioned sex. Love & lust are fundamental to the tale so if the mere mention is likely to send you scurrying, then do scurry. For the rest however, there is nothing to offend. Kurosawa tells it as it is, simply, in as few words as possible... with no romance or titillation or prolonged voyeurism. Her characters simply aren't that kind of people. One does these things. Just as one eats. And for similar reasons: need or pleasure or a mixture of both.

This is pure chick-lit - for all it is set in 1930s India and has interwoven relevancies on race and gender. It is a frolic of a tale told with warmth and exuberance. Where it rises above the genre is in some of the sub-plots which touch on the underside of the subcontinent, its poverty and the harshness of some of the lives of its populace. Some of which have doubtless changed little in the intervening 50 years. Kurosawa doesn't shirk either from showing that the lives of the English protagonists may be no less hard, or squalid, for all the gloss they might pretend to. Her almighty mickey-take of "the English" is softened by her allowance that amongst those ex-pats were those who came to find themselves 'at home' in India and regardless of political developments or indeed because of them, had no intention of ever leaving. People who actually loved the country and its food and its weather and its people.

Then, just in case we might allow that as an excuse, we find that some of those who thought they were such, in the final analysis are something else.

But of course that is the point. Everyone in the glorious sweep of 1937 /38 in Chalaili is some-one else. They are either not what they seem, or they become other than they were, or both.

There are a few serious moments, and one or two touching ones, but mostly it is unadulterated fun. It's not quite a laugh-out-loud read, but definitely a smile-a-second one, from an author whose affection for the place shines through every line.

My thanks to the publishers for sending this book.

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harrylou said:

What an enticing review! Indeed, it sounds like a superior form of 'chick-lit' I can't wait to get my hands on it!

ronniefenwick said:

Thank you for this delightful book. All of my friends have read it and cannot wait for another one from this wonderful author.

larry10 said:

Thanks, Lesley, for such an insightful and thoughtful review. Have just read Coronation Talkies and your observations are perfect. I hadn't expected to enjoy it (not chicklit, I thundered!) but my wife insisted (we have an Indian colonial connection)and I couldn't put it down. Really funny in parts as well and it would make a perfect movie, too: a colonial Bollywood thing with Meera Syal as Mrs Banerjee, I reckon. Anyway, congrats on the review and huge thanks to the author for such a superior piece of fiction. Laurence (and Amelia) Freeman. (The copy we bought has a different cover to the one on your site?)

charlottebell said:

I adored this book and the author has captured the landscapes of an Indian hillstation so perfectly. I felt as if I was in Shimla while reading it and was cross when it ended as Mrs Banerjee had taken me over and I wanted more of her intrigue! It is very amusing too, and the patterns of Indian speech are captured to a T. Well done to this author. 10 out of 10.