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IN BRIEF

Fiction

March 13, 1994|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

KINGFISHERS CATCH FIRE by Rumer Godden. (Milkweed: $12.95; 282 pp.) "Why is it that everything I do, but everything , becomes startling," asks Sophie Barrington, the vague and headstrong protagonist in Rumer Godden's novel of postwar colonial India. After her marriage dissolves, her husband dies and Sophie herself almost dies in a mission hospital, she gets it into her head to move to a remote village in Kashmir, to "live like the peasants." Her baby Moo and her 8-year-old daughter Teresa are unwillingly, and somewhat heartlessly, dragged along. She rents a house, and insinuates herself into the intricate equation of village life, with its feuds and shifting alliances. Sophie is one of those complicated characters who digs herself and those around her into deeper and deeper trouble, until the ever-omniscient reader is fairly screaming at the open book: "You stupid woman, how could you be so blind!" But Sophie is just living proof of the dirty depths of colonialism, so that even her romanticism is a narcissistic insult to the people among whom she lives.

Born in 1907 in England, Rumer Godden was whisked away to India when she was 6 months old. She was shipped back to England for her schooling at age 12, but returned to India when she was 20. She married and had two children, and after her husband died, like Sophie, moved to a remote village in Kashmir, where she wrote and ran an herb farm. Godden has written over 60 books for adults and children in her lifetime, many of them fueled, as this one is, by her deep love for India. "The lakes are fringed with willows, where the kingfishers live, the foothills are reflected in the water in green and pink and blue and white from the orchards and ricefields and mulberry gardens and fields of flax." Merchant/Ivory need only supply the film.

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