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Beautifully crafted windows into a lost world
on 19 February 2012
Rudyard Kipling is neither fashionable nor popular these days. That's a pity because as this collection of fourteen of his short stories amply demonstrates, he was an outstanding author and an astute observer of people - all the more so as he was only in his early twenties when he wrote them.
Almost entirely based in British India, they are windows into a time and place long gone, and of the attitudes that went with it. Kipling has a reputation these days as a bit of a Jingoist but as is clear from these tales, he was a good deal more nuanced than that - there is a great deal of respect for the indigenous populations and their ways, and the white man does not always come out on top.
The setting is instructive and worth reading for that insight alone, free of our modern prejudices. However, the setting is also context. The heart of the stories are the people they revolve around - men, women and children all feature as central characters, often as underdogs, being blown about by unfathomable forces and trying to make the best of it. Some things don't change. They are very well-observed throughout and frequently just a few lines of dialogue give the reader a strong understanding of the individual.
The stories vary in length from just five pages through to twenty-nine (for The Man Who would be King), and cover a remarkable range of genres, from social observation to horror to adventure to a semi-autobiographical childhood piece. It's therefore possible to dip in and out rather than to read straight through and perhaps more enjoyable to do so too.
One interesting and useful addition to the stories is an introduction by Cedric Watts which both previews and reviews the collection, as well as giving some information about the author and so putting the pieces into the context of his life. That too is a well-judged inclusion.
As an uncluttered window into the world of the Raj (and of 19th century Britain), I'd strongly recommend reading them - they are a fine antidote to Dickens, for example - but a more powerful reason to get a copy is simply the quality of the stories and the characters themselves therein.