Book review: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

When first you pick up the definitively titled Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, you may tempted to wonder just how many quirky books about characters encountering some great challenge and thus sweet victory or transformation in the twilight of their lives, one book market can take.

Take a closer look at the publication date however – it’s 2010 for those playing at home without access to the impossibly fine print of the publication page – and you realise that, quite possibly, this was one of the books that began it all, riding the wave that gave us so many mischievously named, idiosyncratically told tales of people finding life where most assuming there was only a slow slide towards senescence and eventual death.

It is, for a start, a finely-written book that sparkles with a sense of humanity that feels real and palpable with a titular protagonist who may be quite stuffy and stuck in his Churchillian gun loving ways but who is, at heart, a decent Englishman with a strong sense of right and wrong, qualities not possessed by a greta many people around him, including his ambitious, funds manager, London-dwelling son Roger.

A widower who lives in the village of Edgecombe St Mary, a quintessential English rural locale with an evocatively poetic name to match, he is quite insistent that he is a “Major”, not a “Mister”, a sign that here is someone unbendingly inflexible who at 68 is not in a position or possessing of a mindset to thoroughly re-invent himself in a way that will set tongues wagging and some people shaking their hands scandalously in disapproval.

“Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother’s wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking. On the damp bricks of the path stood Mrs Ali from the village shop. She gave only the faintest of starts, the merest arch of an eyebrow. A quick rush of embarrassment flooded to the Major’s cheeks and he smoothed helplessly at the lap of his crimson, clematis-covered housecoat with hands that felt like spades.” (P. 1)

With a description like that, you could be forgiven for thinking that here is another sweetly odd tale of an eccentric Englishman in a funny little village populated by strange myopic people who mill about, Vicar of Dibley-style, trying to get through life in their own humourously peculiar ways.

Given how well those kinds of scenarios have been executed by a variety of writers across a range of mediums, that is, in itself, not a bad thing; in fact, much of the reason many people probably pick up the book if because it promises that kind of archly comic diversion.

And yet, as you dive into Simonson’s exquisitely well-written novel, you very quickly come to appreciate there is a story that is prepared to be starkly honest about all manner of things including grief and loss, racism and prejudice, class, and life’s often muddle priorities.

It is, quite refreshingly, a book that manages to be both what you might expect and so much more, subverting ideas of what it might be and say at every delightful page-racing turn.

Part of the appeal stems from the fact that the author infuses her story with a great deal of truth and poignancy; here are characters who are simply around for comic relief but whose lives feel like very much like your own, a mix of possibilities and happiness, frustration and regret.

In other words, it all feels very real.

Helen Simonson (image courtesy HelenSimonson.com)

In the opening pages, for instance, Major Pettigrew has to cope with news of his brother’s overnight death, all while being visited by the local shopkeeper, a Pakistani-Englishwoman named Mrs Ali who has been dismissed, all too quickly by many small-minded people in the village, as not worth worrying about.

Or if they do worry about her beyond her ability to hand them over last-minute eggs, milk and luncheon meat, it’s to make some kind of, in their minds at least, benign observation about her race or social status.

But at heart a kind and thoughtful man who just happens to be woven tightly into the very world that routinely and rather comprehensively dismisses the likes of Mrs Ali, Major Pettigrew soon discovers that here is someone who loves books as much as he does, who lives for her family and who has thought long and hard on a great many things in life in a way that many of her detractors, stuck in ruts so deeply hewn they will never escape them (spoiler alert: they don’t really want to), have never done, nor will ever do.

Theirs is a pleasing meeting of kindred souls that will quietly inauspicious at first, set in a train a series of events, gently funny and yet intensely affecting that will not only change their lives for the better but those of the people closest to them, all of whom have made assumptions about their older loved ones lives should proceed.

Again, it all sounds exactly as you expect, a heartwarming tale of lives reborn, of people encountering a soul-satisfying, heart-fluttering chance at life that also engages a mind long consigned to the same old, same old.

“Forcing his way from the bar, the Major paused in a quiet spot behind a palm tree and took a moment to observe Mrs Ali, who sat quite alone, dwarfed by the large expanse of the table. Her face was a polite blank, her eyes fixed on the dancing. The Major felt she did not look as confident in this warm room as she did on a blustery promenade in the rain and he had to admit that. as he had noticed many times before, people who were alone and ignored often appeared less attractive than when surrounded by admiring companions. As he peered harder, Mrs Ali’s face broke into a wide smile that restored all her beauty.” (P. 270)

Again and again though Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which sings with clever phrasing and deliciously funny phrases that sit cheek-by-jowl with incisive observations about human nature, subverts all of your expectations, buoyed aloft by beautifully and movingly etched characters, a fine eye for social convention and the often urge some people have for breaking them, and a deftly-expressed sense of humour that leavens the narrative without reducing those inhabiting it to mere punchlines.

It’s a book, at heart, of what it means to be alive, truly, wondrously alive, and that while there are a great many people happy to sink into society’s unthinking tight embrace and simply blinding act out their part, however sclerotised it may be, there are people like Major Pettigrew and Mrs Ali, and others in close orbit who reveal their true colours at the story unfurls, who want to carpe diem the life out of everything, if only they’re given the chance.

As you might expect, Major Pettigrew and Mrs Ali are indeed the recipients of such twilight possibilities, grabbing them with both hands once they realise, of course, that it would be insane not to.

That’s because like all of us, they pause to wonder if you can indeed race off into the sunset, possessed of a vigour and joy that you had consigned to the past and barley thought of as part of your future, before realising that what they want is each other (it’s a slow-burning romance that makes sense and feels like the loveliest, most muscular and meaningful thing ever) and that, screw expectations and strangulating social conventions, they are going to live the richly meaningful new lives just handed to them.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is thus a deeply moving book that feel real and substantial and while it undoubtedly trades on some quirky, hilarious elements, it is not the sum total of just those parts, offering up protagonists who are insightful enough to know that these kind of life-changing opportunities are rare and precious and must be seized if life is to matter at all.

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