Sue Gee's very autobiographical novel tells the story of a version of her own family. The paperback edition has an essay at the end about how she came to write it. After her father died, she was listening to tape recordings he had made, and the writing of the novel was something she felt she could now do. She says: "By 2009, I had reached the age of memoir.....the past was precious and important."
The reason I'm writing about Coming Home on the History Girls blog is because as well as being a novel about Gee's own life, it's also the other side of what happened when India became independent in 1947. We have read Midnight's Children and other novels about the end of the Raj, but even the wonderful Raj Quartet and Staying On by Paul Scott are still set in the sub-continent. Gee's book is firmly located in England.
Flo and Will fell madly in love and married quickly. Then, torn away from the idyllic scenes of their courtship, they set sail for a small, grey island far away from the place which would come to represent for them a kind of Paradise Lost.
Children are born, the family goes through very hard times, and when I spoke to Sue Gee on the phone to ask her some additional questions, I told her I found it very sad. She agreed it was sad at times, but that wasn't of course the whole story.
There are two particular strands of the narrative which will test the tear ducts of the most hardened reader. First, we weep for Flo, who all her life has wanted to write. The book starts with her composing a last letter home to her parents before she leaves India. It is the only scene set there. She writes letters, diaries and also a novel about her younger self, wanting to convey the magic of what she feels was her own very romantic whirlwind romance. The disappointments attendant on this venture are heartbreaking. At one point, Flo has a breakdown. I don't want to spoil readers' enjoyment by giving too much away, but there are some things in this book which are hard to read about.
Gee does something very clever in this novel. She tells the story of a family coolly and dispassionately. It is the very opposite of hysterical and overheated writing, but all the more effective for that. The simplicity and directness and 'this happened and then that happened' structure allow the writer to go from one character's story to another, giving each of them his or her proper weight and distinctive set of preoccupations. She is brilliant at showing the impact of small domestic tragedies, or misunderstandings that occur when things are misheard, or not properly talked about: what Will would doubtless call 'getting the wrong end of the stick.'
Perhaps the saddest part of the book relates to Freddie. He is sent away to boarding-school at what seems to us a ridiculously young age. Bea would have loved it there, but Freddie is miserable and Sue Gee's account is a worthy addition to the ranks of accounts of school misery. More than that, though, it shows how what we are now examining and prosecuting as child abuse was allowed to flourish. In part it arose from the horror that people had in those days of 'making a fuss' or being embarrassed. It sheds fascinating light on the subject.
Another thing that makes this novel exceptional is the way Gee creates for those who haven't lived through it, the very texture and taste and look of an entire historical epoch: from post-war austerity (and the winter of 1947!) to the 60s, by which time things were beginning to resemble the world we know today. She does it through detail: the songs sung at Sunday school, the clothes, the landscape, and the careful (though never overdone) descriptions of things like houses, streets, gardens, farms, cars, clothes and everything else that makes our lives what they are. The Sutherlands also have a décor which I recognise from many houses of ex-Colonials that I've been in: statues of elephants, a panther-skin on the floor and sundry other Indian knick knacks. There is a poem by Will which appeared in the newspaper in India called 'Indian Refugees from Burma.' It's reproduced at the back of this edition and it's rather good, too.
Best of all, Gee captures exactly the turns of phrase of the people she's writing about. You can hear the conversations, catch the tone of voice on every page. The class distinctions are here and the slang and the chit chat bring to life a time that's long gone. Many of this blog's readers are young but anyone born in the 1940s will feel as though they've gone back to their own childhoods.
Lastly, I must mention the 'other side of the coin' aspect I spoke of before. Most of the English men and women who came home from the Colonies after Independence were not evil monsters. They were often good, honest, well-intentioned people and, moreover, people who, through their work, and through living in India, had come to love the country deeply and who carried that love in their hearts and their lives to the end of their days. Speaking as a Colonial child myself, I understand this completely. Sue Gee's father returned to England in 1947. My own father was a Colonial till he died in 1972. Many men and women did their very best for a country they regarded as the best place they'd ever been in and Will and Flo Sutherland were two of those people. This is what Sue Gee conveys so well: that here is a life, here are children and problems and everyday things, but once upon a time, there was an enchanted place of eye-searing colour and heat and beauty and that distant place has never been forgotten.
I hope that many readers of this blog will read Coming Home. Gee could have written a memoir and chose not to. This is because a memoir has a duty to be factually true. In a novel, Gee has been able to get inside four different heads and imagine much. That's what makes the difference. That's what makes it, I think, truer than a memoir would be. I did ask Sue what her mother thought when she saw her own daughter being published where she had failed and the answer was: she was delighted. Well, of course she was. The novel shows, more than any other single thing, Flo's profound love for her children. The Sutherlands are a fine family and it's a marvellous book.