Set in British Imperial India in the early 20th century, the story notionally centers around an incident in the Marabar Caves involving Miss Quested, a young British woman new to India, and Dr Aziz, an Indian doctor working for the British. I say the book notionally centers on this incident because in reality it is a book largely without a plot. Rather it is a commentary on the role of the British in India, their behavior, and the not in anyway underlying racial tensions.
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the some of Fosters other works. I found it never quite managed to grab and hold my attention. The style is quite different to his other books I’ve read. Foster has an amazing ability to describe the landscape, to paint the picture and give you a real sense of a place.It is something which really comes across in his Italian books and which I really love about his work. However it is not a skill he utilises here. I never got a feel for India and its landscape. It was there but it was not brought to life.
I also never warmed to any of the characters. I never felt the urge to cheer them on. That’s not to say I disliked them. My feelings about them were basically neutral. I didn’t care what happened to them, good or bad. They varied between annoying an insipid to mildly interesting but nothing outstanding. The best I can describe it, is I found them a bit “meh”.
Aside from this ability to capture a landscape and the feel of a place, Foster is a great social commentator. It is probably the main aspect of this book. Foster really captures the mentality of the British colonialists and makes some interesting comments on them and the colonial project in general. It is clear that Foster has reservations about the behaviour of the British in India. However the mentality of the Indians, I don’t feel he understood quite as well. It all seemed a little caricaturist. Their feelings about the British seemed to be two extremes. Either they viewed them as joke or hated them intently. It was a little 2D and hardly representative of the feelings of a people living under colonial rule who are in the early stages of seeking independence. Foster may have understood and scorned his countrymen but his understanding of the Indians was as clouded by Imperial propaganda as those he scorned.
This may be lauded as Fosters greatest novel but it just didn’t do it for me. If someone came up to me on the street and asked me about it, my only response would be to shrug my shoulders and say “Ah its alright”. Hardly a ringing endorsement. However Foster is still Foster, and even a lukewarm book like this is still better then a great many others I’ve read. Therefore it gets a very average 3/5. Make of that what you will.