A stranger on a plane recommended Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I had previously passed on it, purely on the basis of the title: it sounded like one of those cutesy English novels that set my teeth on edge. It started like that, too — Major Pettigrew is one of those old-school ex-Army golf-playing types, embedded in his picturesque rural village that’s just crawling with terrifying middle-aged women. So far, so E.F.Benson. But Helen Simonson is clever. She manages to keep the novel almost entirely in the consciousness of Major P. while indicating his fallibilities in a way that doesn’t make you hate him. He loathes much about contemporary life, so there’s a lot of railing about that, some of it quite funny: of the lumpish waitresses at his golf club, he notices that many “…seemed to suffer from a disease of holes in the face and it had taken the Major some time to work out that club rules required the young women to remove all jewelry and that the holes were piercings bereft of decoration.”
What’s more, Simonson has something in mind beyond the mere village politics, entertaining though those are. The Major, a widower in his seventies (sorry, I’m not skimming my Kindle version to find out exactly how old), has recently lost his brother. Grief ambushes him physically and he is helped by the woman who keeps the village shop, the Pakistani Mrs. Ali. Simonson gradually peels away the Major’s defenses, revealing his loneliness, as his friendship with Mrs. Ali grows. Of course this causes ripples in the village, especially as the golf club’s annual dance is planned around a theme of “Mughal Splendor.”
I’m not saying this is a searing indictment of covert British racism. Instead, it’s a gentle examination of many forms of cultural blindness. Mrs. Ali has a nephew who, on his most recent trip to Pakistan, has become somewhat radicalized. He and the Major are thrown together and forced to discuss their differences, despite their deep discomfort. The Vicar (of course there is a Vicar) feels obliged to protest the Major’s growing intimacy with Mrs. Ali, a conversation in which both men are allowed to appear well-meaning and awkward, and to part without having reached a conclusion.
Simonson is comfortable with ambiguity, and maybe that’s the best thing about this rather sly novel. Mrs. Ali talks about how her shop is “a tiny free space in a world with many limits.” The author does not resolve the Major’s difficult relationship with his self-absorbed son. And she is really good on death and grief; there’s a passage where the Major’s wife, Nancy, on her deathbed, “gazed at him [Roger, the son] as if to burn his face into her fading mind.” Of course — the dying are being parted from loved ones as much as the departed.
Everything gets wrapped up rather cheerfully at the end — Simonson is clearly writing a comedy, which requires this resolution — but she leaves the reader with something to think about.