The story of the British in India offers a tale within a tale. There’s the narrative of what the Brits did with themselves once they set up shop on the subcontinent. And there’s the deeper story of what drove them to imagine that they could or should settle there in the first place. Here, similarly, there are two nested stories for the price of one. In the outer tale, a strange old woman plays hostess to a priggish young man at her home in what appears to be the North Indian desert. The man, stranded in the desert while he awaits the repair of an airplane, idly asks the woman (who, like him, is English) what brought her to live in such an out-of-the-way place. Hence the inner tale, in which she tells of her youth in the Essex countryside during the late Victorian era. Her story of ambition and deceit and betrayal within a highly repressed high-bourgeois family comes straight out of a Henry James novel, and both its plot and its seasoning of psychological insight are worthy of that model. Unlike James, Smith writes crisply and with a light touch, and the novel is as admirably brief as it is dense and sly. Each of her two tales concludes with a firm snap that, like all good endings, combines a note of surprise with the clear knell of inevitability.
SHELLEY SMITH. An Afternoon to Kill (1953).