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The Far Cry by Emma Smith
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The Far Cry (1949)

by Emma Smith

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In September 1946 23-year-old Emma Smith set sail for India, to work as an assistant with a documentary unit making films about tea gardens in Assam. She was dazzled by India …

‘I went down the gangplank at Bombay, and India burst upon me with the force of an explosion.’

… and she wrote down as much as she could about her experiences because she so wanted to pin down the wonder of it all.

A few years later she would use what she remembered and what she wrote as the foundation for a wonderful, wonderful novel that would go on to with the James Tate Black Award for 1949

‘The Far Cry’ tells the story of 14-year old Teresa Digby. She’s an introspective and rather award child, and I think it’s fair to say that she is what her circumstances made her. When her parents’ marriage broke down her mother left her to go to America and her father left her for his sister to bring up. Teresa’s aunt wasn’t unkind, she was bringing her up as well as she could, but she lacked warmth and she lacked empathy.

When he learned that his wife was returning to England, and that she wanted to see her daughter, Mr Digby decided that he would take her to India, to visit his daughter from an earlier marriage, who was married to a tea planter. It wasn’t that he was interested in his daughter, it was just that he didn’t want his wife to have her.

He was a self-absorbed, dull-witted man who could never be the man he wanted to be or have the roles in life he wanted to play, but who would never acknowledge that, even to himself.

It’s telling that he remains Mr Digby from his first appearance to his last,

His sister knew his weaknesses, knew what he was lacking, but she believed that she had played her part and it was time for him to play his.

“He polished off this diplomacy and his visit with a kiss that landed haphazard on the nearest part of her face, and so left. Such kisses are interesting. For it might be thought that lips which had once, so any years before given off those dark flames of roses must always at a touch bestow a scent, the merest whiff, a pot-pourri of passion. But no, nothing like it.”

The relationship between between father and daughter is awkward, they are uncomfortable with each other. They don’t know each other, they don’t particularly want to know each other. He disdained her awkwardness as she dealt with so much that was unfamiliar – getting in and out of taxis, eating in restaurants, holding on to things like gloves and tickets – but she struggled through, and she came to realise that in attaching so much importance to such things and in not understanding how new and strange things must be for her it was her father who was lacking.

“Teresa, who had watched defeat and then recovery first line and then illuminate his face, observed the breach in his armour: he was old, and therefore weak. And she was young, with her strength growing. Age shook him as fiercely as he had yesterday shaken her in the street. Thoughtfully she ate her breakfast. That she had seen his weakness and was bound to take advantage of it was a tragedy, and a tragedy that the only alternative to his conquering her seemed to be for her to conquer him.”

When they set sail for India Teresa find a role and her confidence grows a little more. She helps with young children, and she formed a tentative friendship with Miss Spooner, an elderly spinster who was travelling to visit her sister. Her father lacks a role, and is left to worry over mosquito nets and play the occasional game of piquet.

In India though the story that had played out in London would play out again. Teresa was overwhelmed and that made her awkward, leaving his father to organise and mange their progress. He was ineffectual, and so Teresa stepped forward, with the interest in the strange new world they were encountering.

The early pages of this novel were an intriguing character study, so well done that even seemingly unsympathetic characters became interesting, but in India there would much more. Through Teresa’s eyes I saw the wonders of India, and I was as smitten as she was and as Emma Smith had been. She caught so many impressions so very, very well.

“Teresa’s head was full of sound and colour. Her head was a receptacle for tumbled rags of impression, rags torn from exotic garments that could never be pieced entirely together again; but the rags were better.”

The sea voyage, the journey though India, the feelings of strangers in a strange land are caught perfectly; every detail, every description feels so right.

In Assam Teresa meets the older half-sister her father adores.

Ruth is a beauty, she had been told that since she was a child, but her tragedy was that she was so caught up in presenting that image to the world, that she had lost the woman she really was. Edwin, her husband adored her, she wanted to tell him how she really felt, but she lacked the courage to tarnish the façade she had worked so hard to create.

It’s a compelling, heart-breaking, horribly believable portrait.

The presence of her father and her half-sister unsettles Ruth’s world; Teresa didn’t realise, she was caught up with new experiences and impressions.

There was a tragedy and Ruth thought that it might offer her an escape. Maybe it did ….

Sadness and hopefulness mingle in the end of this story

There is so much that makes it special.

Smith’s prose really is gorgeous. It’s distinctive, it’s right, and the descriptions so lovely and they catch every sensation. She follows the journey and she manages the both the day-to-day and the set pieces wonderfully well.

“Lights, no bigger than the candles on a Christmas cake, fringed every balcony, every wall, every stall, every hovel, a multitude of tiny red flames flickering alive in the huge dark night. They were still being lit: glistening haunches bent forward, hands poured a trickle of oil into saucers…The warm air was soft with sorrow. They trod among the muddy unseen ashes of the dead. Widows lay along the slushy steps, prostrate in grief, or crouched forward silently setting afloat their candles in little boats of tin the size and shape of withered leaves.”

The characters and relationships are captured beautifully; with the understanding and the empathy that they lack.

The direction that the plot takes is unpredictable; it isn’t contrived, it twists and turns as life does,

And everything works together beautifully, in this profound story of people alive in the world.

“India went on and on, on and on, as though it had no end, as though it had no beginning, as though seas and shores and other continents were only part of a feverish dream, as though this was the whole world and nothing exited beyond it; a world fat and dry on whose immense surface, far apart from one another, dwelt men and their beasts, living and dying together, generation after generation.” ( )
  BeyondEdenRock | Nov 20, 2015 |
One day, seemingly out of nowhere, Teresa Digby is pulled out of school and informed by her father they will be leaving for India shortly. At 14, Teresa doesn't even question this but the reader knows Mr Digby has also abruptly quit his teaching job, and the reason for these impulsive and dramatic actions is the impending arrival of his ex-wife, Lilian. Afraid she will try to take custody of Teresa, he sees flight as his only option. Mr Digby organizes the journey which will ultimately take them to the home of his adult daughter, Ruth, who lives with her husband on an Indian tea plantation. As they depart by ship from Southampton, the enormity of this undertaking finally dawns on Mr Digby. On board ship they forge relationships with fellow travelers, which boosts both Teresa and Mr Digby's confidence.

Their journey through increasingly remote landscapes eventually does lead them to Ruth, and here the story takes an abrupt turn. Emma Smith turns her attention to Ruth and her husband Edwin, and we see Mr Digby and Teresa through new eyes. It is in this section that the real conflict in the story becomes apparent, and is resolved in a very unsettling way that leaves the characters' futures uncertain. This book started as "naive English people travel to strange land," but turned into a deeper, more complex family drama. ( )
1 vote lauralkeet | Sep 13, 2015 |
I find this a difficult book to review even though I did enjoy it. The 14-year old protagonist Theresa Digby is not a pleasant child and for very good reason. Her mother ran off when she was a toddler and left her to be raised by her father and a spinster aunt who believes in Victorian child-rearing techniques. Randall Digby has got to be one of the most bombastic, egocentric windbags in modern fiction. A retired English teacher, he should have been a great novelist except for the fact that he never wrote a word. All he can do is bluster about how unfair life has been to treat him so poorly. He shouts and bullies his way through the book, alternately ignoring, embarrassing or exploiting his daughter. No wonder Theresa is a closed-in child who has stifled any emotions which might get her noticed. In the early chapters she alternates between being immature and thoughtless to being too responsible for her foolish father.

The crisis comes early in the novel. Theresa's mother, newly widowed, has decided to return to England and, rather than face her, Mr. Digby decides to immediately embark on a trip to India to stay with his elder daughter from a previous marriage. Without telling anyone until after the fact,he resigns his teaching position and books passage with a sailing date of less than a week. Theresa is pulled from school and is expected to get herself together for the sea voyage while her father seems to fuss only about buying mosquito nets.

Smith gradually takes her young heroine and, in introducing her to the world, begins to change her. As Theresa experiences the sea voyage and then India, she grows from a child to an interesting young woman. She is entralled by India, all of the country, from Calcutta and its mass of people to the isolation of a mountain top. While her father shoves his way through crowds she drink in the sights...beggars, monks, snake charmers, fruit sellers, She is not disgusted by the smells or the poverty because she keeps seeing the beauty of the country and its people. Theresa does not turn into totally likable young woman over night, but she realistically begins to change as her awareness and confidence grow.

In contrast to Theresa is her elder sister Ruth, unhappily married to tea grower Edwin. They seem to love each other, although both realize the marriage was a terrible mistake. Ruth is beautiful and that is the only attribute she has. She is an empty shell inside, devoid of genuine emotion and walks through life playing the part of a kind, generous and lovely woman. In reality, she cares for no one, hates India, turns the plantation house into a replica of an English drawing room, and weeps prettily when she fears she cannot achieve her wish. Edwin would rather she admitted she hates the place and wants to leave; instead, she pretends an interest she doesn't have.

I think what is so strong about the novel, besides Theresa's journey to maturity, is the wonderful sense of place. Smith knows what she is writing about.. The Indian descriptions are not just pulled from articles in journals, they are genuine. The beautiful is mixed with ugly reality. The respect for the people, from leper to priest, feels real. The result is intoxicating. ( )
2 vote Liz1564 | Apr 1, 2011 |
The Far Cry was inspired by the author’s experiences in India. In 1945, at the age of 21, Emma Smith (who describes herself as “a green young woman” in her preface to this edition) traveled to India with a film production crew as a junior script writer/gopher. While she was there, Smith kept a journal of her experiences and thoughts to detail her “magical Cinderella-like transformation” into a worldlier person. In the preface of the novel, Emma Smith writes brilliantly about what kind of impact her travels to India had upon her, a first-time visitor. What she wrote in her journal went largely into the writing of this novel; and the stronger it is for it, I think, because this is an absolutely stunning book.

When Mr. Digby’s ex wife returns from America, he’s absolutely certain that she’s coming to take their daughter, Teresa, away from him; and so he pulls her out of school in order to go to India, where Mr. Digby’s other daughter from a previous marriage, Ruth, lives with her husband. The novel’s progress takes its reader on the boat journey out to India; to Bombay; to Calcutta; and then, finally, to Assam near the Naga hills, where Ruth’s husband, Edwin, is a tea planter.

My goodness, what a gorgeous book! I’ve never been to India, but this novel certainly makes me want to go. The people and places of India are described in painstaking detail, as only a first-time visitor to India could describe it. They’re probably some of the best descriptions of India written by a Westerner that I’ve ever read (Emma Smith is right up there with MM Kaye in that respect, though they wrote about different time periods and people). In a sense, though, The Far Cry is a novel not so much about India as it is about India as it's experienced by the British.

Emma Smith is especially skilled at describing various foreigners’ experiences in India: Ruth and Edwin, who have lived in India for a while and are sort of immune to the place; Teresa, experiencing the angst that comes with adolescence; and the downright boorish Mr. Digby, who imagines something greater for himself than life has given him. The novel is populated with a number of other, minor characters as well: the elderly yet intrepid Miss Spooner; Richard, Edwin’s second-in-command; or Mr. Littleton, who believes implicitly in the superiority of the British over the natives. There’s also Sam, an Indian fellow whose happy complacency instantly warms the reader’s heart. There are a couple of unlikely coincidences in this novel (i.e., running into Miss Spooner by chance in Calcutta, of all the people you could run into in a city of that size), but other than that, I absolutely adored this novel. ( )
1 vote Kasthu | Apr 9, 2010 |
This is a strange but very interesting (and well-written) book first published in 1949 and revived by Persephone Books.

A shy and rather fragile teenage girl, Theresa, is abruptly whisked off to India by her self-aggrandizing father, ostensibly to visit her half-sister who is married to a tea planter, but in fact to prevent her mother from claiming custody (and, we surmise, to bring a bit of excitement into his dead-end life).

Smith herself travelled to India in 1946 - before that the furthest she had been from home was a wartime job on a canal boat in the Midlands. She kept a detailed diary of the journey, which I think is visible in the vivid descriptions of the trip - we see this first on the voyage out, whether she's describing the ship's dining room: "full of children and from them arose a continual overtone of massed wailing. Like a sea-spray it hung above the dozens of white tablecloths ... for fourteen days that chorus prevailed", or the Saharan sand being blown onto the deck as they approach North Africa. But in particular, the descriptions of India feel genuinely fresh - probably because in 1946 she had no idea what to expect and was not writing with a vision shaped through other travellers' reports.

The developing relationship between Theresa, her father, and the others around her is poignant and compelling, despite (like the inner lives of other characters) being set out in remarkably (and deceptively) simple and concise language. This is one of those books where an inattentive reader could almost miss a sentence which unflinchingly illuminates the depths of a personality.

The vivid surroundings and the painful human relationships do sometimes feel like two different books, though - and there are elements of other books too, like the brittle-wit social comedy of the relationships formed on board ship or between the planters. That's why I describe it as a strange book. But very much worth investigating, for both the main elements. ( )
3 vote wandering_star | Dec 6, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Smith, Emmaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hill, SusanAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The birds came and picked holes in the sleeping ears of Teresa Digby.
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