Three Continents by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Morrow: $17.95; 384 pages)
A European woman educated in England and married to an Indian architect, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala writes memorable novels, stories and screenplays that often deal with cultural conflicts between East and West. "Three Continents," perhaps her most ambitious book, not only confronts these issues directly but in a more contemporary context than either "Heat and Dust" or her superb film adaptation of E. M. Forster's "A Room With a View."
Here she is writing about the mesmerizing impact of Eastern personalities upon a pair of American innocents, the 19-year-old twins Harriet and Michael Wishwell, heirs to a considerable fortune.
The story is told by Harriet in the artless schoolgirl prose of a young woman who has acquired only the sketchiest knowledge of the world from her sojourns in the various exotic outposts where the twins spent their childhood. Brought up by their diplomat grandfather, insulated by the protective atmosphere of American embassies and international schools, Michael and Harriet spent their youth as privileged nomads, vaguely dissatisfied with their American heritage but with no sense of belonging anywhere else. Because neither of them has formed any other close attachments, their mutual dependence is total and absolute.
After one semester of college in the United States, Michael has become a restless wanderer in search of spiritual enlightenment, one of the thousands of rootless young seeking solace in Eastern philosophy, traveling the well-worn path from Katmandu to Goa to sit at the feet of gurus who invariably disappoint him. Though Michael does at least have this quest in life, Harriet so far has no comparable direction. While her brother actively pursues salvation, she awaits his return at the rambling family estate, alone with her divorced mother Lindsay and Lindsay's companion and lesbian lover Jean.
This oddly constituted family is pathetically vulnerable to the machinations of the people Michael abruptly brings home with him. One day he turns up with the Rawul, an obscure Indian prince who has proclaimed himself a spiritual leader; the Rawul's beautiful and fascinating mistress, the Rani, and Crishi, a young man of mysterious origins presented as the adopted son of the Rawul and Rani. Of the three, Crishi is by far the most compelling and menacing. Within a matter of days, the Wishwell clan is enthralled by him; only the sensible Jean is immune to his dubious charms. Though the group arrives with a sizable entourage, these hangers-on make themselves scarce when they're not serving the needs of the principals.
The supporting cast of American friends and relatives is more elaborately drawn and fully realized, but ultimately they too become merely incidental as the drama narrows into an account of Crishi's malevolent impact upon Michael and Harriet. While the Rani plays a leading role in the ensuing events, the Rawul, nominal head of a worldwide movement, seems merely a figurehead--a plump, elegantly dressed presence delivering fatuous lectures to his gullible audience of true believers. A benign and fundamentally ineffectual man, he is easily manipulated not only by Crishi and the Rani but also by the Bari Rani, his legal wife and mother of his three giddy daughters.
As the title indicates, the novel unfolds first against the American background of the Wishwell estate, moving from there to the society's quarters in London and reaching its melodramatic climax in India. A withdrawn and awkward girl when we first see her, Harriet is transformed by her passion for Crishi, so consumed by love for him that she unquestioningly tolerates his casual cruelties, his outrageous lies and unexplained absences, passively submitting to his unreasonable demands before and after their marriage. Though his baleful influence is immediately apparent to the reader, Harriet spins an impenetrable cocoon around herself, refusing to recognize Crishi for the unprincipled predator he is. Consumed by the sexual needs he has aroused, she pours her family money into the movement despite the fact that she seems altogether indifferent to its tenets.
Her brother Michael, intellectually ensnared by his belief in the Rawul, also becomes Crishi's creature, bound by spiritual ties and his own erotic attraction to Crishi. While Harriet is well aware that she's sharing her husband not only with the Rani but with her own brother, and eventually with numerous others drawn to this one-man Kama Sutra, she continues to regard her existence as blissful, ignoring every indication that she's being heartlessly and unscrupulously used by a completely ruthless man. For virtually the entire length of this novel--two years in time--Harriet drifts on a sea of sensuality.
Handled with restraint and delicacy, this theme must carry the entire weight of the book. While the youth and naivete of the narrator help our credulity, ultimately we're left with an inescapable skepticism, despite evidence that actual and far more horrific instances of such domination exist. In this case, however, the victims are not portrayed as crazed, drugged or even fanatical but merely as casualties of their misplaced enthusiasms and overwrought emotions.
Despite the grace of the writing, a lingering disbelief remains; the 21-year-old Harriet who tells her story never quite persuades us she's the person to whom the events described could have happened.