Kingfishers Catch Fire was published in 1953 and was ‘compounded of three years’ living, thinking and perhaps dreaming in Kashmir.’
It is said to be Rumer Godden’s most autobiographical novel and if you’ve read anything of her life you can find similarities between that and parts of this story.
It’s interesting that Godden took the first phrase of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem, ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ as the title of her book as she didn’t become a Catholic until four years later. She quotes the first verse of the poem below at the beginning of the prologue:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces
Sophie is an idealistic English woman with two young children who was living in India when her husband died. With very little money to keep her and her children she moves to Kashmir to live, not as a ‘poor white’ but ‘like the peasants.’ She has a romantic view of life; everything she saw was poetry and she determines that if she lives like the locals she will get by. Returning to England had no appeal for her but she has no understanding of the poverty the people of Kashmir faced.
‘She could have seen it in the land…if she had had eyes, but in those days she had only superficial eyes.’
Rumer Godden was excellent at portraying children who were displaced, unwanted, or misunderstood. In this story that child is Teresa, Sophie’s eight year old daughter. Teresa wanted to be back in England where there was security and stability; where life was predictable. She was a fearful child, made so partly by the fickleness of her mother. She could see things where Sophie could not.
‘Teresa could not count how may times they had moved, but each time the small ballast of hopes and plans they had collected was thrown overboard and everyone they had known was left behind.’
Sophie’s lack of understanding and inadvertent breaking of etiquette places them all in danger. Her actions arouse the animosity of the villagers as they compete with one another for her patronage and it is Teresa that bears the brunt of this hostility.
‘In India, a woman alone does not go and live alone, not at any rate far from her own kind, not unless she us a saint or a great sinner. Sophie was not a saint or a sinner, but she was undeniably a woman.‘
There are some peaceful interludes that I enjoyed reading, such as how Sophie found her means of refreshment when the usual distractions were taken away:
Sophie believed that she had to learn solitude. It was a hard struggle and she hadn’t known before that it was something that had to be ‘learnt.’
Kingfishers Catch Fire is a very perceptive book that is now one of my favourite books by this author. That is due to the story itself but also because I went to India in the mid 1980’s and travelled by train from Mumbai to Jammu Tawi where I got on a bus that took me to Srinagar.
That bus ride up the base of the Himalayas nearly ended my life – by heart failure. It unnerved me so much that I decided I needed to catch a plane on my return to Delhi if I was to go on living.
I stayed about a week in Srinigar on a houseboat on Lake Dahl and reading this book felt like I was revisiting Kashmir – without the traumatic bits.
‘There is something brave and immediate about the word ‘to sally.’
Linking to Brona’s Books for the Rumer Godden Reading Week 2021 – a bit late with my review!