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Book Review : An English Farce in Classical Garb

October 02, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

After the Ball Was Over by Rosemary Kingsland (Viking: $14.95)

"After the Ball Was Over" perches atop such classics as "A Passage to India" and "The Jewel in the Crown" like the mustache that Magritte painted on the Mona Lisa.

This unusual farce about life in an English township in East India is a comical hallucination and a tissue of improbabilities. Rosemary Kingsland has conducted a midnight raid on the Anglo-Indian literary cupboard, drunk all the champagne and made an utter spectacle of herself.

"After the Ball" is set in the imaginary outpost of Jamalpur, where the East Indian Railraod maintains its rolling stock and trains its staff. Ostensibly it is to be a light novel of manners about snobberies, intrigues, love affairs and back-biting among the expatriates. The cliches make their appearance as if by invitation: Box-wallahs, horseback riding on the Maidan, lovable but mischievous Indian servants, a blimpish hierarchy of officials and their fading wives.

Something Askew

But something is askew from the start. The cliches are a shade too innocent, too emphatic.

Our leg is being pulled, we begin to suspect, as we meet a quavery missionary named Miss Toogood, a fierce paterfamilias who quivers with incestuous passion for his daughter, a tippling vicar. And somewhat later, we realize that leg-pulling is Kingsland's sneaky way of inviting us to an odder dance.

A marble statue of Queen Victoria stands in the town square; and in the hills above, there is a strange black boulder that remarkably resembles the Empress of All India. With a due sense of quotation, Kingsland had wedged it up there as a means of turning Jamalpur into one big outdoor version of Forster's Malabar Caves.

Oversexed or Overcrazed

Because everyone in town is either sex-mad or plain loony. At church services, Sgt. O'Leary leaves his place beside his mistress, Mrs. Ray, to fondle the beautiful organist, Jane, in mid-hymn, despite her cries of outrage. Mrs. Ray charges up to pull him off. Meanwhile, her timid husband visits Josie, a timid spinster, and they stay in her bedroom for an entire week making wild love.

The town's richest man, Mr. Edwards, comes home to find his daughter standing on one leg and tweeting under the impression that she is a bird. His son falls into Mrs. Ray's clutches and the son's wife is pregnant by the husband of another daughter. Before the book ends, Mr. Edwards will jettison family and property and take to the road with a begging bowl.

Jane, the fondled organist, gives piano lessons to the daughter of the local maharajah. At his palace, she is spotted by MacNamara, an impossibly handsome stage actor. Here is Kingsland on the spotting: "Riveted, MacNamara stood outside the open windows of the music room and absorbed Jane's lovely profile, noting her ravishing auburn hair, so at odds with her dowdy, schoolmarmish dress. Without moving, he watched for several minutes, before pulling himself together with an effort and moving away.

" 'No ties, MacNamara,' he told himself. 'You promised yourself no ties.' "

More Oddities

New oddities arrive, seemingly, on each train. An unhinged clergyman, the Rev. Morgan, comes to take the place of the clergyman who tipples. In church, he recognizes Miss Toogood as Avril, his long-lost love. They interrupt the service to sing a duet in Welsh.

A blond adventuress hits town with claims upon the manager of the local club, where the annual ball of the Railroad Apprentices is to take place. The manager is embedded with daughter of the railroad's controller, the town's grandest citizen. Not long afterward, a blond head and a dismembered body is fished in neatly tied parcels out of the Maidan Lake.

The weather grows ominous. Two tigers, who had been coughing loudly in the hills, come into town and eat several of the characters. And on the night of the ball, MacNamara takes Jane away in a pistachio green Stutz Bearcat five miles long. At the top of the hill, they look back and see the black rock effigy of Victoria take India's vengeance on Jamalpur. From naturalistic comedy to campy spoof to surreal farce, Kingsland's book picks up momentum; its zaniness enhanced by her deadpan tendency to write here and there in a Welsh accent. It is a precarious acceleration; and sometimes a bumpy one. But at the end of its 146 pages, we realize that the journey has managed to tickle and trouble us at the same time.

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