Anne Chisholm

The serpent in the garden

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The River

Rumer Godden

Virago Modern Classics, pp. 224, £

Loss of innocence happens to us all and is one of the great themes of literature. With The River, a novella first published in 1946 and now rightly republished by Virago, Rumer Godden gave us not only her best book (she wrote more than 60) but a small masterpiece, a near perfect account of how childhood has to come to an end and the serpent must enter the garden.

Her story of an English family living on a river in Bengal (now in Bangladesh) is closely based on her own early life. Born in 1907, she grew up, the second of four sisters, in a large house at Narayanganj, near Dhaka, where her father worked for the Inland Navigation Company; like so many children of the Raj, she had been sent back to Britain to be educated only to be reprieved, as she always saw it, when the first world war began and her parents feared years of separation. No one has ever evoked better than Godden the shock of leaving the golden warmth of India and family life for the cold grey bleakness of England and strangers, and in The River she celebrates the joy of return and a passion for the people, colours, sounds and even the smells of India that never left her.

Through her heroine and alter ego, Harriet, who writes stories and hides them, as did Rumer, in the trunk of a tree, she evokes, in simple, flawless prose, a young girl’s first encounters with jealousy, sex, guilt and death. Harriet’s beautiful older sister captivates the wounded war hero she considers her special friend; her mother has another baby; and her little brother, Bogey, plays a dangerous game which Harriet knows she should stop but never does, with terrible consequences.

No wonder Jean Renoir, the great director, chose to make The River into a film and ask Rumer back to India to work on it with him. The film diverges from the book and seems dated now, with its plummy-voiced narration; but it has beautiful passages, and provided Satyajit Ray with the opportunity to work with Renoir and learn from him.

As well as The River, Virago republishes here two of Rumer’s Kashmir stories written ten years later. This may seem unnecessary, but they do show her range — there are no English children in them — and her unsentimental capacity for facing the pain and cruelty of life in India, which she observed closely when she lived on a mountain above Srinagar during the second world war.

Both stories are set among goatherds. In ‘Red Doe’ a young girl is handed over to an arranged marriage, and in The Little ‘Black Ram’ a boy has to abandon an animal he has come to love. It is to be hoped that Virago will go on to republish King-fishers Catch Fire, the novel based on Rumer Godden’s own darkest experience in India, her version of Forster’s Marabar Caves.