Two parallel stories run side-by-side as the 1923 downfall of Olivia during the British Raj in India is explored through a series of analepses by the (unnamed) granddaughter of Olivia’s ex-husband some 50 years later.
Propriety and social constraints are jettisoned in favour of rebellious passion as Olivia, newly arrived in India, becomes suffocated by the boredom of being a British Raj administrator’s wife.
Young and beautiful, she soon attracts the attention of the local Nawab, a minor Indian prince. In spite of her love for (boring) husband Douglas and the Nawab’s association with the daicots terrorising the local villages, Olivia is drawn to the thrill and excitement of palace life.
Fifty years later, Douglas’ granddaughter arrives in the town of Satipur looking to understand Olivia’s decisions and motivations – and like her, she becomes embroiled in the squalor and heat and dust of India: like Olivia, she becomes pregnant, uncertain of the father.
Heat and Dust is a short novel (180 or so pages) and is relatively straightforward, narrated as it is by the 1970s family member. Jhabvala is an assured and confident writer (as well as novels and short stories, she won two Oscars for adapting A Room With a View and Howard’s End for the screen) but there’s something lightweight about Heat and Dust.
It’s full of the smells and textures of India – and the racism of the Raj is succinctly portrayed. But there’s no real analysis or judgement – it’s a keen observational novel without any overt emotion. Like the social constraints of the 1920s, it’s controlled and distant.
Jhabvala’s novel won the Booker Prize in 1975 beating the only other shortlisted book, Gossip From the Forest by Thomas Keneally. It remains the shortest shortlist in Booker history (and excluded Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man and Robertson Davies with his World of Wonders – the final book of The Deptford Trilogy).