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A Lovesong for India: Tales from East and West, By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

William Palmer
Friday 18 November 2011 01:00 GMT

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's new book of stories is divided into three sections: "India", "Mostly Arts and Entertainments", and "The Last Decades". Inevitably her interests and subject matter leak between these divisions, so that India and the perplexing relation between European and Indian cultures dominate many stories. But the structure does echo the author's preoccupation with that most abiding unit of human intercourse – the threesome.

In "Bombay (pre-Mumbai)", set in the 1950s, the beautiful Munni flees from India to New York to avoid an arranged marriage. Here she meets and falls in love with Davy, whose father, Abhinav, is a legendary film star in India. Back in Bombay the young couple move into the father's mansion, built to resemble the 15th century palaces of his films. Here the still vigorous and charismatic star lives like a king, ruling over feasts and interminable gambling parties. In this fantastic setting, Abhinav gradually entices his son's wife away to become first his housekeeper and then his mistress. The story of this slow seduction is perfectly handled, the motives and emotions shown very subtly, but it has the solid universality of a folk tale.

Another archetypical trio appears in "School of Oriental Studies". Timid Maria, a young German academic, is in New Delhi to attend a reading by a poet, Anuradha, who "huge and stout, glittered like a star". Maria offers to translate her work and moves into the poet's house. Anuradha rises in the afternoons and spends much of her day in possessive raging arguments with her son, who longs to escape to America. Maria and Anuradha work at night and Maria becomes utterly dominated by the hugely vital woman who seduces her mentally and sexually. Her sabbatical comes to an end, the son escapes, but Maria decides to stay; both women look forward to "the days and months and years of their nights of poetry, their wild nights together".

"Critic" shifts attention to New York, where vain, womanising drama critic Theo Fabrik meets a beautiful film star, Patty Pope, of whom he has written a devastating critique. To his surprise she is charming to him and to his mother, the monstrous Madame Sybille. It would spoil things to say more about the progress of Theo's desperate love for Patty – it is an exquisitely worked-out tale of revenge.

One or two other stories might have succeeded better as short novels; their time span is so long and the characters' affairs too complicated. But those singled out here are superb, as is the wryly funny title story, about how a feckless son brings near disaster to his parents and how they derive happiness from their fall. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala tells entrancing tales.

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