The cover on my Kindle version of Helen Simonson’s “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” is truly atrocious. So atrocious that I’m actually going to share a picture of it with you.
Anyway, for comparison’s sake, I’m also going to share pictures of what versions of the cover actually exist below. I love ebooks, but I do hate what they’re doing to the art of cover art.
This book was a mad mad read. It’s set in present-day Britain, and in this small countryside village, Edgecombe St Mary, in the south of England. It’s about this retired British colonel widower who falls in love with the widowed Pakistani shopkeeper Mrs. Ali, and the fall-out.
Basically, you know how in Agatha Christie’s murders one of the characters is always a bluff old retired military colonel who bumbles about with a red face and tells stories about his time in India? This is like if Christie’s Colonel was transplanted to present-day England and then fell in love with a Muslim. (Others have also noted the Christie links.)
Major Pettigrew is basically one of Christie’s colonels. He lives alone, has family connections to India (his grandfather had a hand in Partition), oils and waxes his guns, believes in England. He’s quite touching, very likeable, but also you can see how his environment has shaped him.
Mrs. Ali was born in Cambridge, and is yet still viewed as an outsider to the small English town, who persists in viewing her as foreign. So the novel is also sort of like, if one of those Enid Blyton boarding school books, suddenly had to deal with a Pakistani Muslim. So you know how in St Clare’s, I think, or Mallory Towers, there were these two token foreigners, Claudine and Carlotta? And Claudine was this French girl who was always using her feminine French wiles to get her way, and being a slippery French eel because she didn’t have a British sense of honour because she was French? And Carlotta was half-Spanish, and so of course she was always doing cartwheels spontaneously and her gypsy past was always alluded to, and she was always slapping people with her fiery eyes and her hot temper because she was half-Spanish? Because in Blyton’s world nationalities dictate personalities? This is sort of how the ladies society in Edgecombe St. Mary in the novel views Mrs. Ali.
So the fall-out when the Major and Mrs. Ali fall in love is kind of amazing. This is a super fun, super mad novel, and exactly as satisfying as I, a Muslim, long time lover of Christie and Blyton, might have imagined.
The supporting cast is also fantastic. Major P’s son, Roger, is hilariously mercenary, and there’s a touching recurring theme of Major P wondering about his fitness as a father, and a brother.
There’s an American businessman who again, in his crassness, and Major P’s horrified reactions to his crassness, might have been drawn straight from Christie.
Mrs. Ali’s pious, guilt-stricken nephew Abdul Wahid is mostly hilarious for his interactions with Major P, who doesn’t quite know how to deal with this sour young man who reads the Qur’an, but is also oh so typically grumpy, disenfranchised, and convinced of his own correctness in the way of young men everywhere.
And Grace. Oh Grace. And Alice. The Major’s well-meaning and quite mad neighbours.
I actually had been looking at Simonson’s latest novel, The Summer Before The War, but saw this synopsis and had to read it. I remember seeing this everywhere in bookstores a few years ago, but never picked it up because it looked a little kitschy. So I’m very late to this party, but I’m so glad I came.