Romancing India

Romancing India

Lead review

Romancing India

Cometh the Hour takes off from the starting blocks from the word ‘go.’ The Jeffrey Archer Express pulls away from Mightier than the Sword, the last cliffhanger, from page one. Archer’s loyal band of readers will feel a pang when they come aboard this latest express train of a book. This is his penultimate offering in the 7-part Clifton Chronicles. The next halt will be The End.

This chronicle brings you to 1978. The principal characters of Harry and Emma Clifton, Maisie, Giles Barrington, Sebastian Clifton; the wicked gang of Lady Virginia, Adrian Sloane, Desmond Mellor and other familiar characters, who have wandered across the stage of the Clifton Chronicles thus far are all there, allowing us to quickly get back to the story at large.

The opening court scene sets the tale into motion, with Lady Virginia continuing to try and bring Barrington Shipping down to its knees. And from there Archer takes over, with the tale twisting and turning and lulling you into what seems to be a standard tale steadily chugging away. But then there are these sudden trade mark Archer last lines in many chapters that get you to gasp. Rather like the unexpected screech of the train’s emergency brakes, since we began this review with that analogy — before the tale shudders back smoothly into yet another scenario.

Archer’s books have always topped the best-selling charts in India. And the huge numbers help. Perhaps as a grateful acknowledgement of this fact, there is an important segment of the story that takes place in Bombay (as that City was called in 1971, the period in which this particular section is set). Even the cover is a tribute to Archer’s Indian admirers, since it has the Gateway of India, and a couple zooming past on what appears to be a 2-colour-toned Lambretta scooter, popular those days.

But for me personally, this is the only patch where the tale falters a bit — Archer seems a bit unsure of his footing. His touch of accuracy for details is missing in more than a couple of areas. Take his description of “…switching on the ignition of the motorcycle…” for a bike of the 1970s era — they were all kick-start machines, unless they were the rare imports. Or using credit cards to pay 5-star hotel bills, and the list of airports having ‘direct flights to London.’ Archer lists Bengaluru as one along with the other “…three out of New Delhi, one from Calcutta...” airports. But the first direct international flight from the then HAL airport began in 1997, and the first direct London flight (British Airways) in 2005. Not like Archer to get his facts wrong.

He said in an interview to this reviewer (Sunday Herald, March 17, 2013) that he was unsure about getting the feel for an Indian story right. “…I avoid India, there is a texture to India, there is an Indian feel, and I don’t have the confidence to do it...” He should have avoided it. Perhaps the possibility of a commercially-inspired tokenism to India is responsible for that false note.

But this Indian chapter, too, takes your breath away with its last line. And then the tale moves back to surer ground in England. After that gentle lurch, the train is quickly roaring back to speed.

There are lots of autobiographical touches, like Emma getting involved with the administration of a National Health Scheme (NHS) hospital — Archer’s wife Mary was deeply involved with NHS Foundation Trust for 10 years.

There are also several moving moments in the novel that brings a lump to the throat, and without giving away the story, descriptions of the common man applauding a hero’s wife in an airport, or acknowledging that the pen is mightier than the sword shows that the master storyteller has not lost his touch.

In the novel, there is a suggestion from Maisie that her son Harry Clifton, the successful best-selling author, writing the popular Warwick series, should halt the series. “...And now to William Warwick...Harry, perhaps it is time for him to retire, so that you can stretch yourself to reach even greater heights...perhaps the time has come for you to write a book that will bring happiness for generations to come, whose reputation will outlive any bestseller list and make it possible to join the handful of authors whose names will never die...”

Is Archer sending us a message? Here is another excerpt from my interview, an answer to what he would do after the Clifton Chronicles. He had said a set of short stories “...and then I am planning, God willing, to write the biggest novel of my life after that. I know the outline...”

Jeffrey Archer, clearly, plans to put his prodigious talent of storytelling to more serious stuff. As for this one – read it slowly – there is only one Clifton tale left — the climax. Savour this one, like a true Archer fan.

Cometh the Hour
Jeffrey Archer
Pan Macmillan
2016, pp 420, Rs 599

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