Critical Evaluation

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the Man Booker Prize for Heat and Dust and an O. Henry Award for her short fiction. She also is a two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter. Born to Jewish parents in Cologne, Germany, in 1927, Jhabvala was educated in London and married Cyrus H. Jhabvala, an Indian Parsi architect, in 1951. She moved to Delhi, India, in 1951 and to New York in 1975.

Heat and Dust is Jhabvala’s eighth novel. Her fictional writings about India have not concentrated on the country as such, but on the effect it has on Westerners. As the narrator of Heat and Dust puts it, “India always changes people, and I have been no exception.” Jhabvala’s stories are commonly told from the perspective of outsiders. In her 1968 short-story collection, A Stronger Climate: Nine Stories, for example, she divides Europeans in India into two types: seekers and sufferers. Seekers go to India in search of something they cannot find in Europe and seek emotional or spiritual fulfillment. Sufferers are persons who have stayed too long in the country and discovered that everything that was initially fascinating and exotic has turned sour and alien. The narrator of Heat and Dust, the English backpackers she encounters, and ultimately Olivia Rivers, are seekers, whereas most of the novel’s British colonial expatriates are sufferers.

On a fundamental level, Heat and Dust is a story about a fifty-year-old mystery. The novel’s unnamed narrator is fascinated with discovering the truth about her great-grandmother Olivia’s scandal and with experiencing what she did and felt. As the narrator says, “this is not my story, it is Olivia’s as far as I can follow it.” Although Jhabvala’s writing style in this short work is spare and simply worded, she is able precisely to convey the complex reality that underlies characters’ actions and thoughts. To tell Olivia’s story, Jhabvala brilliantly employs the narrative device of parallel but distinct stories in which the narrator’s and Olivia’s tales frequently alternate in time (a technique Jhabvala had learned writing for film). This double...

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