THE LAST BOOK I LOVED: KINGFISHERS CATCH FIRE

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“The house was called Dilkhush, ‘To make the heart glad’; that was as common in India as Fairview or Mon Repos in Europe. Sophie would not have considered living in a house called Mon Repos but Dilkhush was in Kashmir, and she thought it romantic.

It was her own idea to go and live there. When Sophie had an idea, her child Teresa trembled.”

In a secondhand bookshop in the South Melbourne market, I found Kingfishers Catch Fire for the first time; or rather, my husband found it for me, pulling a battered copy off the shelf and saying, “Have you read this one yet?” Our shelves at home were overflowing with Rumer Godden’s work, and yet I had never come across or even heard of Kingfishers. Its disintegrating dust jacket was printed in blue, with astrological figures cavorting around an elegant typeface. I bought it on the spot.

Finding a new work by Godden is akin to striking gold. Many of her books have fallen out of print now, for reasons I can’t quite understand. A writer of the calibre of Carol Shields and Iris Murdoch, she is yet mostly unknown these days, and unread. I often wonder why; perhaps it has to do with the fact that her dramas are on the smaller scale; they are unabashedly domestic, ‘women’s novels’, that ought to be bright fixtures in the firmament of feminist writing.

Like many of her novels, the plot of Kingfishers Catch Fire is deceptively slight. A young widow, destitute and ill in the remnants of colonial India, moves to a tiny village in Kashmir. ‘We will be rich by becoming poor’, she decides, and sets out after a ‘peasant’ simplicity that will make the most of her small pension. From the slightest of her decisions—which village family to entrust with repairing the roof, how to deal with the women collecting fruit on her property—fissures ripple out, until her presence in the village, and that of her two children Teresa and Moo, begins to tear the place apart.

Though the novel could easily play out over race or class lines—1950s Kashmir being ripe with colonial anxieties—tensions break over the rock that is Kingfisher’s centre, Sophie. Disdaining convention, she befriends Hindus, Muslims, rich and poor alike; the only criteria for her approbation are a set of aesthetic attributes that she mistakes for a moral core; charm, ease, independence, like-mindedness. The novel sets those who would stand with Sophie against those who are simply left bewildered by her, including, most poignantly, her daughter Teresa, who lacks all of Sophie’s glamour and charm.

“To despise ought to be one of the seven cardinal sins,” Godden wrote later, and wrote it of herself. The events in Kingfishers are in fact based in truth; they are written more factually in Godden’s memoir, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, but there is a deep honesty in her incisive and unsentimental portrayal of Sophie, a woman who feels keenly, but not for those she despises, ‘ordinary’ people.

There are so few anti-heroines in literature—genuine anti-heroines, women whose wilfulness and individuality isn’t castigated or punished by the weight of narrative—that the idea of a woman like Sophie still feels revolutionary. In 1953 she doesn’t drive across America, aimlessly sleeping with whoever she comes across and drugging herself into oblivion. She takes her children, and travels alone to live in the shadow of a mountain, embracing its cold clarity and turning down the men who would love and protect her for the pursuit of an ideal.

That she fucks it up for everybody almost goes without saying. Sophie has ideas. She cannot help it. Much of the book is given over to her whims and sorties, her idealistic forays into a world she doesn’t really understand, and the mistakes she makes in running her household. Throughout the novel, the conflict promised in its opening lines begins to brew, as Teresa, young enough to feel the full force of Sophie’s actions but not quite old enough to articulate her own worries and doubts, tries to find her feet in a context that she (wisely) finds troubling.

But while I ache for and sympathise with Teresa, it is Sophie that captures me; captures me so deeply that often, in reading the book, I forget about the mechanics of reading and simply coexist. The bottom often falls out of her plans, and whips around to hurt other people.

“Is it wrong, thought Sophie in these unhappy nights, lying awake in the dark… is it wrong to have ideas? ‘What are you to do,’ she asked Aunt Rose when she saw her again, ‘if you are the kind of person who had them?’

‘You have to learn to temper them,’ said Aunt Rose, ‘With discretion,’ said Aunt Rose, and she gave a little yawn. ‘Discretion is very, very dull,’ said Aunt Rose.”

Is it wrong to have ideas? This is the central question at the heart of Kingfishers. At what point do you tamp down your own needs in order to respect the needs of others for conformity, ordinariness, routine? What happens to you if you do; what happens to others if you can’t?

In Sophie’s case, it is tragedy, in the form of an event entirely of her own making. Her conflict with Teresa is bound to play out in the most heart-wrenching way possible; it is almost inevitable, when a woman and a young girl fundamentally misunderstand each other, or when in understanding, dislike and fear the other’s motivations. Sophie and Teresa are bound by love, but Sophie is not a Good Mother—she will give her heart and soul over, but only to those she perceives as kindred.

And yet the novel never abandons her. Perhaps in an act of kindness towards her former self, Godden carries Sophie through the very visceral horror at the novel’s climax and brings her, intact, out the other side. She won’t condemn her, and refuses to let the reader condemn her; Sophie is softened, but ends the novel as she began, a woman apart, with more respect for the apparatus of the ordinary but aware that to adopt a more conventional life would be a small death.

Though it’s impossible to read a novel like Kingfishers Catch Fire and believe that Sophie has made the right decisions, they are decisions with which I have infinite sympathy—wrong-headed as they are, they fly out of a breathtaking swiftness and originality that gives her moments of intense beauty and peace.

I myself am not brave enough to be an anti-heroine. Having spent my own adolescence with a Sophie-like whip-sharp tongue, I tend to bite it, lest I hurt the people I love; my husband, our Moo-aged child. This tempering with discretion does work. Rumer Godden herself employed it, waking at four am to work in the bitter Kashmiri morning, then stepping back when the sun rose, the dogs stirred and the children woke, holding in her more vivid impulses to create a stable home while the second world war broke everything around her.

And yet I suspect that for Godden in writing a Sophie, and for me in reading her, we share a common desire; for a moment, simply, to shake free. A dip into Kingfishers is a heady immersion into a life of pure ego, one I take when I need a breath of fresh air, to be unbattened from a life of loving compromise into a wild yearning for something unnameable.

And the title? It’s from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

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 What I do is me: for that I came.


Jessica Friedmann is a writer and editor living in Melbourne, Australia. More from this author →