On her eighteenth birthday Rachel Verinder receives a diamond, known as the moonstone, from her uncle Herncastle, who left it to her in his will. There is reason to suspect the motives of Herncastle, as there is a legend that anyone who steals the moonstone from its shrine in India will be cursed with the moon god’s revenge. That fear seems immediately realised when three Indian men appear at Rachel’s birthday party who show a keen interest in the stone. When Rachel wakes up the next morning, the moonstone is missing. Which brings us to the beginning of the mystery at the heart of The Moonstone.
I received a copy of The Moonstone from Alex last year when I visited London and we did a small book swap with other bloggers. I was excited because I knew this meant an impetus to finally read one of Wilkie Collins’ books, of which I had heard so much. Plus, it is an Oxford World’s Classics copy to boot!
What I particularly loved about The Moonstone was that it is at times more character study than mystery. The story is told from alternating perspectives by characters who are all acquainted and involved in the mystery somehow. As the stories are told in somewhat chronological order, with the presence of an editor playing in the background, there are occasions when you are shown the narrators struggling with what they knew at the period of time they’re describing and what they know now (Miss Clack). Moreover, the narrators all position themselves differently in regards to the mystery and each other, so you will often find them commenting on each other. And these comments need not be nice!
This subtle, or not so subtle, criticism of the other narrators had me sniggering from time to time. Really, I hadn’t expected it, but The Moonstone is a very funny story. I don’t think I often find myself laughing about a story so much. This is not only because of the comments the narrator make about each other, but also for the characters themselves. I especially found Gabriel Betteredge wildly entertaining. His insistence on using Robinson Crusoe as his “bible” to turn to for advice (there was a moment in the book where I felt that Collins might have been criticising anyone who takes written text as the ultimate truth), and his always finding something suitable in the book for his situation – loved it.
There are of course things to be said about the Victorian portrayal of women and Indians. I don’t want to delve too deep into that because my mind is currently very much a blank as I have been staring at an article and participating in a master class all day. Nevertheless, there are some small remarks I would like to make. For one, while some of the women are irrational, portrayed as easily run away with feeling, there are moments in which the book can be quite refreshing in suddenly casting a woman in an independent, rational, and even heroic role.
The same could be said about the portrayal of Indians. True, they are the mysterious strangers that are immediately made out to be suspicious. But there are also moments when these stereotypes are turned around and contrasted positively with British identity [which, I realise, might still be considered “othering”]. Moreover, there is the recurring question of who Collins feels the moonstone truly belongs to. There are hints throughout the novel that the three Indians looking for the stone may actually be right in their pursuing it, since it was taken from their country. At the same time, the Indians are not innocent, and portrayed as willing to kill if need be. And what to make of one character who is possibly half-Indian but [spoiler: has a heroic role in the discovery of the question of who took the stone and why]. In the words of John Sutherland, who wrote the introduction to my edition, ‘Collins is adept at raising subversive thoughts in the reader only to leave them ambiguously hanging.’ Which is exactly one of the reasons why this book is such an interesting read.
After reading The Moonstone I am definitely on the lookout for more Wilkie Collins. Any suggestions which book I should read next?
Other Opinions: Things Mean a Lot, BooksPlease, Novel Insights, Entomology of a Bookworm, Amused, Bemused and Confused, Jules’ Book Reviews, S. Krishna’s Books, Ela’s Book Blog, Farm Lane Books, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Let’s Eat Grandpa, Book Clutter, Leeswammes, Savidge Reads, A Library is the Hospital of the Mind, Wordsmithonia, A Striped Armchair.
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