Sue Gee is a writer whose books I love, and so when I saw that she was to be speaking at the Slightly Foxed Readers' Day, I had an extra incentive to go to London for the event.
A quick look at the posts on Sue's novels The Mysteries of Glass, Reading in Bed, and Earth and Heaven, and her short story collection Last Fling, will show something of the calibre of her work, and highlight the characteristics which keep the reader coming back for more - she's someone I look forward to reading because, to put it simply, she's so good at what she does.
Sue's talk at the Readers' Day was titled Staying On and Coming Home because she discussed and explained her admiration for Paul Scott's Booker Prize-winning Staying On - which is about 'old colonials' who have stayed on in India after Independence - and contrasted that story with her own new novel Coming Home which features a couple who have left India in 1947 to make a new life for themselves back in Britain. She commented on the pathos of Paul Scott's book, and on its dry humour, and she explained that for Scott's characters - as for her own - India was the defining experience of their lives.
I have recently read Coming Home (which was provisionally titled The Tiger of Tulsipore, in case anyone has been looking out for a novel under that name) and I'd say it too is marked by pathos and dry humour, and of course by Sue's trademark keen observation and beautiful rendering of a scene, whether its focus is external or on a character's interior life. It's about Will and Flo Sutherland who met and married in India and almost immediately left the country to return to Britain. Now with two small children, they are setting up home on a ramshackle farm in Devon, and while Will puts his all into the back-breaking work, Flo picks up her pen and starts to write the story of their time abroad. The novel follows them through the years as Bea and Fred grow up, Will's career changes and progresses, and Flo struggles to find a path for herself. It is a very poignant book, for of course there are many ups and downs in the Sutherlands' lives, and some scenes and passages are very sad indeed; to that extent it reminded me of Joanna Cannan's Princes in the Land* in its portrait of the disjunction between expectations and reality, and of how a woman can so easily lose her way.
Sue spoke about her own family background, for this book is her most autobiographical and in many respects it is the story of her parents, her brother and herself. She was moved to write it when on her father's death she was left tapes he had recorded of all his old India stories, for like Will, he was there until 1947, and of course had told his children of his life and exotic adventures in that other world. Hearing those tales again, Sue decided to use this personal history as the basis for a novel about families, their dynamics, and how it is all too easy to get 'lost' in them, missing a turning as one tries to find one's own way of 'coming home'. Its arc of experience reaches from that all but vanished world of the 1940s to the post-colonial age, and it is a perfect period portrait, but it's chiefly a very human story and one with great resonance. I strongly recommend it.
*Speaking of Persephone Books, in Coming Home Flo is given a copy of Kay Smallshaw's How To Run Your Home Without Help (there's a brief passage from it here); I'll leave the reader to discover how useful she finds it!