editor's choice




It’s wonderful when writers, particularly women writers, get their moment in the sun again – and it’s especially so when the writer is someone as talented as Kamala Markandaya.

In her day, she was a well-respected, best-selling author, her name known globally, and yet, despite this, for some twenty years, her novels were out of print and thus largely unavailable to modern audiences. The Coffer Dams, originally published in 1969, has been put back into print by Small Axes, along with several other of Ms Markandaya’s classic works.

As its title suggests, The Coffer Dams, focuses on the building of a dam in post-Partition southern India. The protagonist, Clinton, is a ‘builder’, who takes pleasure in constructing things that ‘last’, of bringing the places he’s sent to into the twentieth century, whether it’s wanted or not. And it’s this that’s at the heart of Markandaya’s novel, the conflict between East and West – of what’s deemed progress by the West in a former ‘colony’ and what that nation actually wants or needs, the imposing of Western mores on so-called developing countries, the paternalism and racism.

Using a simplicity of language that’s quite beautiful in its spareness, Markandaya evokes the harsh terrain and climate in which Clinton’s team of skilled European men have to live and work, a fact made more difficult as they fail to comprehend the culture around them and the implications of their presence on the environment and people who live there. Conflict is a major theme in the book, and it’s not just between Clinton, his men and the locals, or Clinton’s team and the  environment, but also between Clinton and Helen, his fairly new, much younger wife.

While Clinton is many ways a typical ‘colonial’, distanced from his surroundings, completely disinterested in engaging with the locals whom he treats largely with distaste, with latent racism, Helen is his polar opposite in every way. Willing to engage and eager to learn, she disappears off during the day to explore the landscape and talk to the tribesman rather than spending time, as Clinton would prefer, with the other European wives who shop and socialise. At one point, Clinton asks Helen whether her ability to connect with the locals is to do with her youth; she replies rather tellingly, ‘It’s nothing to do with age. I think of them as human beings … You’ve to get beyond their skins.’

The Coffer Dams is an examination of an emerging nation, still dealing with the discriminatory attitudes and practices of its former colonisers, who see it and its people as inferior and backward in every way. Markandaya repeatedly states this is a man’s world, and the men are Europeans, who view any other race or gender as less.

This is a really great read, Markandaya’s skill as a writer, her ability to finely etch her characters and landscape authentically, allowing her to deal with some quite weighty issues with a deftness of hand. And it’s a joy to see this and many of the author’s other novels in print again, and in such lovely Saul Bass-esque graphic editions. It must be obvious by now we’re fans of this book: we can’t recommend The Coffer Dams, or Ms Markandaya’s other work, enough.


The Coffer Dams | Kamala Markandaya | Small Axes | paperback |£9.99 | 2020

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Acknowledgements: Book text quoted, copyright Kim Oliver © 2012. This review is published as part of the virtual book tour. Many thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours, as always and thanks to the publisher, Small Axes, an imprint of Hope Road, for sending us a review copy. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved. Please check out the other wonderful reviewers on this tour and please share them.

Also of interest:Alice Walker and the power of poetry‘; ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’; ‘Sylvia Plath on poetry‘; ‘WB Yeats, “The Journey of the Magi“‘; ‘Yvonne Battle-Fenton’s Remembered‘; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

This review is copyright © 2020 by The Literary Shed. All rights are reserved. All opinions expressed are our own. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please contact us for permission and provide the necessary credit. Thank you so much. We welcome your feedback.


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